The NFL Off-season in the Age of Coronavirus: How “The Shield” Has Dealt with Two COVID-19 Related Legal Issues

Alon Elhanan

When historians look back on April of 2020, the NFL Draft will not likely be top of mind. But, is there a better microcosm of the strange times we live in than the following statistic? On April 23rd, 2020, over 15.6 million people (a 37%+ increase over 2019) watched a glorified version of kids picking teams on the playground.[1] Other than some nervous pacing (from both fans and team officials), there was no active or sporting movement of any kind. Viewers simply watched NFL General Managers and Coaches evaluate and prioritize talent from their couches. During a time in which many Americans are missing sports and its role in entertaining the masses and fostering human connection, the NFL temporarily provided respite and gave fans something to obsess over.

While the NFL, especially Commissioner Roger Goodell, often receive criticism from fans and public officials regarding myriad issues (some of it duly warranted), the sports and entertainment community should applaud the way the NFL has so far dealt with CoVID-19 and the related legal issues during its 2020 offseason. Below are two recent legal issues surrounding the NFL offseason that the league has dealt with effectively.

  1. NFL Draft:

The first question the NFL had to deal with regarding the Draft was whether it could even have it at its scheduled time, and whether it was safe to do so. While cancelling or delaying the draft would have likely had implications related to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between NFL Players and the league (regarding roster sizes, timing of cuts to the roster, and/or how to allocate the amateur athletes who want to enter the league without a draft), making the decision to keep the draft in place had its own legal concerns. Many NFL owners and General Managers were worried for their, their staff’s (which often include 30+ scouts and coaches) and their players’ personal safety.[2] In addition, many GMs felt that a process without proper medical checks and in-person visits with prospects put their teams at risk of making an ill-informed decision.[3]

To deal with the issue of personal safety of both staff and fans, the league made the decision to run the draft virtually, cancelled its physical Las Vegas-based event, instructed all teams to close their facilities, and scrapped all in-person visits with prospects to ensure safety protocols were met and the virus was not unnecessarily spread. [4] It required all 30 teams to do so simultaneously to maintain competitive parity between all teams, including those in “COVID-19 hot zone” areas. 

To deal with the higher degree of uncertainty regarding the medical status and “team fit” of prospects, the league appears to have essentially signaled to the teams that their draft choices still follow the maxim of “caveat emptor” – that “the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.”[5] To have communicated or intimated otherwise could have led to a host of problems if a prospect later fails his physical, gets into legal trouble, or otherwise leads an NFL team to have felt defrauded in a way that could have been avoided during a “normal” NFL draft. The effect of the increased uncertainty caused by the virtual draft appears to have led to prospects with medical concerns (such as Alabama Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) to “fall” to a lower pick than expected during the draft and prospects from established NCAA programs to be picked in higher numbers (A record 40 players from the SEC were drafted in the first three rounds).[6]

  1. Off-Season Training Program / Workout Bonus Compensation:

The other major decision the NFL had to make, while simultaneously setting up the virtual NFL draft, was how to deal with its off-season training programs, which includes both Organized Team Activities (OTAs – some of which are “voluntary”) and Training Camp, and the workout bonuses that many (over 250) NFL players have written into their contract. With all team facilities closed, the usual venue for OTAs and offseason workouts were unavailable. This led to significant concerns from the players’ union, which was worried about both player safety (due to decreased “ramp-up” time before a grueling season) and player compensation.

In response, the league and the players’ association came to an agreement to conduct a “virtual offseason program” which should allow for, at the very least, increased interaction between the players and coaching staff before training camp.[7] The virtual offseason program also allows players to qualify for their workout bonuses remotely, with each team allowed to send certain equipment to verify the accuracy of the workout results. The speed and collaborative nature in which the league and players’ union dealt with these complexities after the decision was made to close all team facilities helps the players, who get their deserved and (likely) contractually-obligated compensation. In addition, the quick coordination also helps the league, who avoids potentially costly litigation and negative media attention for closing all team facilities unilaterally and then not allow its players to be fully compensated due to something outside of their control.

While no one currently knows whether the 2020-2021 NFL season will start as scheduled on September 10, 2020 after a full training camp period, NFL fans, players, and staff all over the world should be satisfied by their current actions in keeping us entertained while relatively effectively dealing with the novel COVID-19 virus.