IRVING, Texas — The NFL is planning “significant changes” to its COVID-19 protocols amid the worst three-day stretch for the league during the pandemic, a person familiar with the plans told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.
The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because details haven’t been finalized, said the league and the NFL Players Association are discussing three main areas: testing protocols; return to play guidelines to allow asymptomatic players who’ve tested positive to return sooner; and encouraging booster shots.
On Monday, the league informed coaches, front-office staff and other team personnel to receive a COVID-19 booster by Dec. 27. Players weren’t included in the mandate because the league hasn't mandated the vaccine.
The new coronavirus variant has been found among the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases in the NFL in what the league's chief medical officer is calling a new phase of the pandemic.
Dr. Allen Sills said NFL owners were told in meetings Wednesday that booster shots are the focus of efforts to minimize spread, with Sills saying the omicron variant is expected to become the dominant strain in the U.S.
The league said the number of positive cases Monday and Tuesday ended up at 88, but with players coming and going on the list, about 100 is more accurate.
Still, Commissioner Roger Goodell said there were no plans to cancel or postpone Cleveland's home against the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday. The Browns have 18 players, including half their 22 starters, on the COVID-19 reserve list.
“Listen, we’ve raised this the last two years: It’s a challenge,” Goodell said. “I think the things that made us successful was keeping safety first. Second, being willing to adapt at all times. It’s clear even in the last couple of weeks that the changes are pretty significant and different than they were before, and I think it calls to modifications to our protocols in general, and we’re working with the players association on that.”
Sills said about two-thirds of the positive tests came from people with no symptoms. Asked if there was a chance the NFL would allow vaccinated players who tested positive to play if they didn't have symptoms, Sills said discussions with the union were ongoing.
“It's not about how soon we get them back,” Sills said. “We want to bring them back when it's safe for them and when they are not at risk to others in terms of transmission.”
NFLPA President J.C. Tretter made another plea for daily testing amid the COVID-19 surge, but Sills said testing wasn't the best way to address the league's larger concern of spreading the virus.
Sills said players are testing positive more often than NFL staff, a change from early in the pandemic. In the past week or so, according to Sills, spread within team facilities has been a bigger concern than in the community.
Besides discussions with the union, Sills said he's trying to use video to educate players about the extra shot.
“This is urgent for us, just as it always has been,” Sills said. “And I think we’ve adapted and changed our protocols at each stage, just based on what the data is telling us and where it’s driving us with that. That’s what we’ll continue to do here.”
In other news, league owners approved Las Vegas as the site of the Super Bowl to cap the 2023 season, a first for the gambling mecca in the Nevada desert.
The NFL's biggest event will follow the Pro Bowl this season and the NFL draft next year, all within five years of the Raiders' move to Las Vegas.
The 2024 Super Bowl was supposed to be in New Orleans, but a later date brought on by the new 17-game regular season created a conflict with that city's annual Mardi Gras celebration.
“It's a big day for the Raiders,” club owner Mark Davis said. “It's a big day for the city of Las Vegas. I think it's a marriage made in heaven, I'll say. Some others may use a different word.”
The Super Bowl will be at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles for the first time this season. State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, will host its third Super Bowl after the 2022 season.
The NFL also announced marketing agreements for 18 teams with countries around the world, including Germany, China, Spain, Australia and Brazil. They join countries with longer ties to the NFL: the United Kingdom, Mexico and Canada.
The marketing deals are for at least five years and give clubs the ability to pursue in-person and digital marketing, merchandise sales and corporate sponsorships among other things.
The league is expanding the Rooney Rule requirement of at least two interviews with external minority candidates to general manager-level jobs along with the coordinators for offense, defense and special teams.
The two-candidate rule already applies to openings for head coaches. The window for virtual interviews will now open after Week 16 for clubs that have either fired their coach or informed him that he won't return.
While the longer access for interviews isn't limited to minority coaches, the NFL hopes it will allow more minority candidates to interview rather than wait for their current team's playoff run to end.