It’s no secret that the coronavirus has effectively altered sports history.
The NBA, NCAA, NHL, MLB, and PGA have already made wise decisions to cancel or suspend their biggest events of the year to cut down the spread of COVID-19.
However, one other major sports league has yet to make a decision on its biggest event of the spring. In a statement released yesterday by NFL Football Operations, the league stated the reasoning behind canceling multiple events scheduled in March, but did not announce a definite decision on April’s NFL Draft in Las Vegas.
“These decisions were made consistent with the league’s primary concern to protect the health of club and league employees, combine participants, and public,” the statement said. “We will continue to closely monitor developments, consult with leading experts and be prepared to make any other changes necessary as circumstances warrant.”
The NFL’s decision here should be easy.
Postpone the NFL Draft.
While the league did decide to cancel smaller events that were set to take place in March, such as the NFL’s annual league meeting, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) combine, and regional combines, it’s becoming obvious that decisive action to postpone the NFL Draft, which is scheduled to begin on April 23, is urgent.
As currently constructed, the NFL still plans to hold one of the largest sports gatherings of the year just weeks from now.
Last year’s NFL Draft in Nashville drew an estimated 600,000 people, and in 2018 more than 200,000 attended the three-day event in Dallas. With this year’s taking place in Sin City, crowd numbers have the potential to spike even higher.
Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, spoke at a congressional hearing on Wednesday and warned the NBA of the risk to continue to play with large crowds in their arenas.
“We would recommend that there not be large crowds, if that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it,” Fauci told Congress. “But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds is something that would give a risk to spread.”
Fauci was direct when administering advice to the NBA, whose average attendance for a game is close to 20,000. Based on the recent NFL Draft attendance numbers released by the league, the 2020 NFL Draft could potentially hold anywhere from 10 to 30 times the number of people that attend an average NBA game.
“As a nation, we can’t be doing the kinds of things we were doing a few months ago,“ Fauci exclaimed. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a state that has no cases or one case — you have to start taking seriously what you can do now, if and when the infections will come. And they will come. Sorry to say, sad to say, they will.”
The health risks that come with holding an event of this size could only be detrimental to a country that is looking to combat a pandemic. Even if the methods being utilized currently are effective in slowing down the spread of the virus by mid-April, holding an event that allows hundreds of thousands of people to be within inches of each other could result in an unplanned spike in the disease that could reverse the progress the country has made.
And if those health concerns aren’t enough to get the NFL to action, what about their prospective players?
The NFL could cut down on the COVID-19 risks by having an old school style draft at their league office. They could remove the event from Las Vegas and just announce the selections on social media. However, that would once again be short-sighted. Scouting personnel would still not have the opportunity to assess these players properly. Athletes with more film and media attention would receive preferential treatment over guys that can prove their abilities on the field through their 40 times and individual drills.
NFL teams across the league have sidelined their coaches and scouting personnel from travel at arguably the most important time for player evaluation.
College pro days, pre-draft workouts, and player interviews have all been canceled as a precaution against the coronavirus. All contact with prospects must now be done remotely. This leaves many talented players who may not have the name recognition of a Chase Young or Joe Burrow left out to dry.
One late-round draft prospect, who asked to speak anonymous for fear of backlash, told Deadspin that his opportunity to impress NFL personnel could be affected by COVID-19.
“I’m worried about how the team’s scout restricted travel might affect the exposure of small school prospects like me at pro days,” the prospect said.
The NFL has seen an influx of small school talent enter the league that has had a significant impact on their respective organizations. Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard won the defensive rookie of the year award in 2018 after being selected in the second round out of South Carolina State in the 2018 Draft. Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen, had similar success after being drafted in the fourth round out of North Carolina A&T in 2017. Cohen went on to be a pro bowl selection in 2018 and helped lead the Bears to the playoffs.
The league has an obligation to look out for all of their prospects during the draft process. Drastic changes must be made to the NFL Draft in order to help serve the athletes that make the league what it is today.
“I think [to postpone] would be fair to the people who actually keep the ‘NFL’ going,” said the prospect. “That would help with evaluations — I am wondering if the NFL is willing to do that though.”
Not only should the NFL be willing to do that, they should have already done it. There’s only one possible option here for the NFL – postpone the 2020 NFL Draft. It is the only way to fairly protect the fans, players, coaches and front office personnel while also allowing teams to adequately assess the 2020 Draft prospects. All of these individuals have worked tirelessly to make the shield the highest-grossing sports league in the world. In many ways, the league is obligated to act in fairness to all parties involved during this pandemic.
There is no more time to waste. Postpone this thing. Like, yesterday.