David Chao, MD: Three Reason Why the NFL Will Play In 2020

The number one question I get asked is: “Will the NFL play”? This question takes on new heights with the college football turmoil and the cancellation of the Big Ten and PAC-12 fall sports season. MLB has struggled without a bubble which brings the NFL season into some level of doubt.

I continue to steadfastly believe the NFL will play AND start on time on September 10th as the Chiefs host the Texans. I have stated that publicly on the record since the pandemic started as early as March on Clay Travis’ Outkick Fox Sports Radio national show multiple times.

Many things have changed including the cancellation of some big time college football and worry for myocarditis. However, my thoughts remain similar. I have long had confidence the NFL will start on time. Whether they will finish on schedule and without bumps in the road is a different question. That will depend on compliance of the players away from the team and on the virus itself. 

My logic and confidence is based on three main factors.

Market Timing
The NFL got lucky as it couldn’t be better market timed. Whether with real estate or the stock market, if we could all buy at the lowest point and sell at the highest point, me might be as rich as some of the owners. COVID-19 started in late 2019 but did not really reach the shores of the USA until February before all hell broke loose in March. Although I remember discussing coronavirus down in Miami during the media week, it was right after the Super Bowl when things accelerated and thus giving the NFL the maximal amount of time to gather data, react and prepare for this coming season. The NBA was forced to suspend play mid-season, as did the NHL.  MLB couldn’t get out of Spring Training. NFL football is the singular sport that was the least affected by timing.

This timing allowed the time to learn about the virus and contributes to the early encouraging test numbers of a bubble-less NFL.

The NFL has Always Been a Good “Poker Player”
Like a smart poker player, they know all of the permutations and combinations for a winning hand. They read the other players but they don’t show their cards until it is time. And they win more often than not. Just three weeks ago there was the NFL player tweet storm protesting that they didn’t know the plan. Quickly thereafter the NFLPA signed off all on the COVID team plans. Right before training camp, Odell Beckham said the NFL should cancel the season but upon arrival to the facility, he saw for himself how safe the facility was and he did not opt out.  

The planning seems to have paid off. There is a definite focus on being proactive with tracking sensors inside the practice facilities rather than just reacting to positive tests like baseball has. There are many rules changes with increased practice squads and COVID list. The lack of bubble when going home has been addressed by the NFL/NFLPA agreement to make any players not compliant with social distancing away from the team subject to NFI which means no salary. In addition, veteran players have stepped up to speak out to council young teammates and the concept of viral load seems to have sunk in. The Seahawks acted quickly to release a transgressor of social distancing rules. As the NFL revealed their cards, they seem to be playing a solid hand and they are not bluffing.

Alignment Between Players and Owners
Financially the two sides are aligned. Unlike college football, where the universities make all the money, there is true revenue sharing in the NFL. Professional football players don’t have guaranteed salaries, like their MLB and NBA counterparts, and are affected by income. Already mostly without fans, the $200 million salary cap will dip some. Without games and the TV revenue, that would be a disaster. The cap would be lowered for many years to come. Spreading the financial losses would “smooth” out the dip but that still means long term economic affects for players for have short careers. For example, GMs say a franchise QB can only be paid 17% of the salary cap. It is no coincidence that Big Ben’s salary is $34 million. What happens if the salary cap dips? Not only will there be less new money for players but even league stars like the Steelers QB could be salary cap casualties.

The players and teams are also aligned medically. This is the health and safety era. As any former player will tell you, access to medical care while in the league is unachievable away from the team. Even with the myocarditis concerns, with appropriate monitoring, both sides are aligned to have player health.

These points as well as unified decision making in the NFL give it the advantage over the NCAA. With the cancelling of Big Ten and Pac 12 football this fall, the idea those leagues have to play a full season in Spring borders on delusion. Assuming the pandemic is under control or the “hail Mary” of a successful vaccine is completed by then, can you really ask college players to play two seasons (spring and fall) in 2021? That would be more hazardous to their overall health than SARS-CoV-2 risk. At best, the Spring has to be a modified schedule without watered down players that are not looking to enter the Spring NFL draft. And by the way, the NFL doesn’t have that luxury of moving to a shortened spring season for similar reasons.

For the sake of the fans and the players, I hope I am right. I remain confident the NFL will play and start on time if the players and the virus cooperate.

Written by Dr. David Chao

David Chao, MD -- known digitally as Pro Football Doc -- is an expert contributor for Outkick. Chao spent 17 seasons as the team doctor for the San Diego Chargers (1997-2013) and is part of the medical team at OASIS in San Diego where he treats and specializes in orthopedic sports injuries, working with high-profile professional athletes from the NFL, NBA, and MLB.


Leave a Reply
  1. Hey Doctor Chao,
    Market timing, as you say, was excellent for the NFL and MLB. ‘Serendipity’, if that even applies, but we see that MLB doesn’t have the strategic thinkers that the NFL has. Here’s hoping the NFL gets it right, as you say.

  2. I would give MLB more of a pass on market timing. They opened Spring Training as the pandemic was gaining steam and could not start the season. NFL only lost the offseason program. Even with the lead time, the timeline was close to getting started and the NFL lost their preseason. Thanks.

Leave a Reply