Just over a month after dozens of big-name NFL players indicated the 2020 season was in jeopardy as a result of unclear protocols for playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, football season is, in fact, right around the corner. Many training camps are nearing their public conclusion. Coaches are preparing to finalize game-day rosters. And we're less than two weeks away from the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans on "Thursday Night Football."
But where, exactly, does the NFL stand in terms of readiness for this unprecedented season? Are we really going to have 16 games? Are teams really going to play a contact sport without setting off virus outbreaks? Is it really safe to assume football will proceed as scheduled?
Dr. Larry Caplin is the founder of DOCS Health, which offers healthcare services to various industries, from schools to government agencies to correctional facilities. He individually advises nearly 20 NFL players on COVID-19 safety and has been part of calls with NFL Players Association representation to map out everything from testing options to medical science as the NFL prepares to forge ahead with its 2020 campaign. He's also spoken to team physicians and stadium executives, all in the name of orchestrating a safe season.
"Getting asked to develop public health safety is what we do," he says. "Candidly, whether I get a call from the archdiocese for a region of the country or an NFL stadium, it's not out of the question."
In an exclusive discussion with CBS Sports, Caplin answers some of those pressing questions facing the NFL with the season around the corner:
What are some of the biggest concerns players have addressed with you?
Dr. Larry Caplin: The No. 1 concern is always the safety of their families. And that's followed by their universal desire to be able to play. They want to be making sure that there's compliance among the players as a group, and that there's enforcement by individual teams and the league. What's really come to light through this is that everyone is taking this seriously, up and down the entire chain.
How have those concerns changed over the course of the offseason?
Caplin: The NFL learned from Major League Baseball. The leagues have learned from basketball and hockey and Major League Soccer. It's an evolving process. People make the mistake of looking at the NFL as just the NFL and the NBA as just the NBA as if they're not paying attention to each other.
The NFL's COVID testing rates have been very encouraging thus far. Do you foresee that changing once the season starts?
Caplin: That is likely to be impacted come the 10th of September, when people start traveling and patterns change. I think the NFL would benefit from adding a secondary 'bubble,' much like the NHL did, where they're testing the people that players come into contact with, whether it's at hotels or wherever. I think there's likely to be some missteps initially, but they'll learn from it and adjust accordingly. The NFL is very conscious of the risks.
How do those risks also pertain to what happens on the field on game day?
Caplin: The problem is if you have an exposure to your offensive line, what does that do to your team and the probability of you having a successful season? It is possible that the team that is the most compliant and keeps their players the healthiest is the most likely to end up in the playoffs and potentially win there.
All in all, how confident are you the NFL will not only start its season on time but complete a full schedule?
Caplin: Right now my confidence level is high. The variable is the virus itself, which may have outbreaks in cities that are relevant to where (teams) are playing. I haven't heard any discussion about flexibility around managing that. For example, if Philadelphia had an outbreak and they're supposed to have back-to-back home games, would they look to play those games at the opposing team's stadium? Everything has to be managed with the backdrop of how the country is responding to the virus, and that's going to be geographically dependent ... We're gonna come into flu season, and we are likely to have a secondary wave. But how high that wave is is going to be a function of cooperation by the public.
What are you hearing from the players about their confidence level?
Caplin: They like the seriousness that the teams and the NFL have applied to this problem. There's significant optimism among all of them. This whole thing revolves around compliance. If the players and the teams are compliant, they'll play. If they choose not to be compliant, then they run the risk of impacting the entire team. No one wants to be that guy.
How exactly are you advising players as they prepare for this season and its protocols?
Caplin: A lot of what I'm talking to them about involves when they're not within the control of the team. So how they're managing their personal interactions, what their families are doing, testing protocols for people around them. Basically working on that secondary 'bubble.'
Can you paint a picture of what life outside team facilities actually looks like for players?
Caplin: The majority of the guys that I'm talking to go to work, go home, go back to work, and go back home. And they limit exposure outside of that as much as possible. Some don't even have their families there -- families are living in other areas. It's their careers, it's their livelihood, it's their team. And that's what it's gonna take. It's not that one person infects two or three people, remember; one person infects 30 or 50 or 90 people, and they understand that.
What would you say to those who might still be skeptical about game-day transmissions? At the end of the day, it's still a contact sport, so does that remain a serious concern?
Caplin: From my perspective, if you're worried about that, then you have not handled compliance on the front end. The approach is to make it so that when you take that field, all of that has already been handled. If you're worried about the fact that players are on top of each other when someone's being tackled or when the offensive line and defensive line are engaged, then you've already let the horse out of the barn. If you're getting testing done daily, then the probability of catching anyone who is asymptomatic is very high. I think of it like a series of layers that you're building around each individual, and if everyone follows that, the probability of one person transferring it to others is dramatically reduced.
All things considered, how would you assess the NFL's plan and preparation to play during a pandemic?
Caplin: They have done a great job in preparing to have a season that has a great outcome given the construct of what's around, what's gone on. There are always areas of improvement, but they come with learning. So as the weeks go on, protocols will continue to evolve, and there's a commitment to that from everyone. And that's why I'm optimistic.