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COVID-19 is testing NFL's flexibility

Murphy Takes 5 is a monthly column written by President and CEO Mark Murphy

Fans at Lambeau Field during Packers vs. Bears game
Fans at Lambeau Field during Packers vs. Bears game

On the first Saturday of every month, Mark will write about a topic of interest to Packers fans and the organization, and then answer five fan questions. Fans are encouraged to email Mark with their name and hometown at:

Week 12 of this year's NFL schedule had to be one of the strangest in the history of the league. It started with three games scheduled on Thanksgiving – including the traditional home games in Detroit and Dallas. The Steelers were scheduled to host the Ravens on Thanksgiving night. However, that game, due to an outbreak in the Ravens' facility, was rescheduled to Sunday afternoon, then Tuesday night and then finally Wednesday afternoon. Yes, the first-ever Wednesday afternoon game, making last week the longest week in NFL history. COVID-19 is also testing the flexibility and creativity of each team. Due to a backup quarterback testing positive and contact tracing determining that all their quarterbacks had met without masks, the Broncos were forced to play the Saints without a quarterback. Wide receiver Kendall Hinton, an undrafted rookie who played quarterback early in his career at Wake Forest, played quarterback for the Broncos. Unfortunately, the results were predictable, with the Saints (who played without starting quarterback Drew Brees) winning 31-3, and with Hinton completing one pass and throwing two interceptions. It's never a good sign when you have more interceptions than completions. The league also closed all club facilities on Monday and Tuesday to avoid a spread of the virus following Thanksgiving. Finally, due to regulations in Santa Clara County, the 49ers will be the Arizona 49ers for the rest of the season.

As we head into Week 13 of the NFL schedule (there was no Thursday night game this week due to rescheduling related to the Ravens-Steelers game), a total of 18 games have been postponed or rescheduled. Significantly, though, none have been cancelled. With teams no longer having any byes, it will be more challenging for the league going forward to find spots to move games. Given this, it is imperative that all teams strictly follow the league's protocols. It has certainly been a strange year, and it hasn't always been fair to teams, but the best teams will be the ones that are resilient, flexible and follow the protocols.

Now, on to your questions…

A question from David

Way to go, Murph! In midst of the worst pandemic in America our city has an alarming infection rate. The media begs us to not spend the holiday with our loved ones. They urge us not to go to bars and restaurants. Our health care providers can't understand why we don't take the virus more serious. So, what do you do! Have a picnic with your selected few to go to the Packer game. THAT'S REAL LEADERSHIP.

The decision to have any people in the stadium for our game against the Bears was not one that we made lightly, David. It was based primarily on input from local health officials, including Chris Woleske, President and CEO of Bellin Health; Dr. Michael Landrum, Bellin's Infectious Disease Specialist; and Anna Destree, Brown County's Public Health Officer. They were comfortable with the protocols that we have put in place, believed that it would be safe for attendees and felt that it would send a strong message to the community that you can co-exist with the pandemic if you wear masks, stay physically distant and wash your hands regularly. We ended up having 285 people (mostly employees and family members) attend the game, seated (by household) in physically distanced pods of 2, 4 and 6. We will have the same group invited to attend the Eagles game tomorrow, but think we will have more people (over 500) attend the game because it is an afternoon game. Most importantly, having these games with employees allows us to evaluate the protocols and will give us the confidence to host games with fans safely if we are allowed to do so by the local health officials.

George from Green Bay

Hey Mark, first, I would like to thank you for watching out for the Packer fans and the whole staff in Lambeau dealing with the whole COVID. Trust me I am one fan that didn't like not going to the games, but I understand it isn't easy deciding something that everyone is against. I was wondering is there a realistic timeline to allow fans to attend games this year? I feel like our Packers need us in the stands to cheer them on in these hard times. I heard local sports were able to hold games without any COVID issues, like the Green Bay Gamblers. Also, will you make it mandatory for all players and staff to take the COVID vaccine when it becomes available? I hope you and your family have a safe and healthy holiday. Keep up the good work.

Thanks, George. As I mentioned in the answer above, we would love to have fans at Lambeau Field this year, but would only host fans if the local health officials are confident that we can do so safely. The key obviously will be the status of the virus in the local community and across the state. With regard to the vaccine, I do not think we would be able to require players to take it (it would have to be negotiated with the NFLPA and we currently do not require players to take the flu vaccine), but we would certainly strongly encourage it. Obviously, it would be great if the vaccine were available in time to help us this season, but realistically I don't think it will be available to our teams that soon. Also, the vaccine can cause people to feel sick for four to five days, so I think players would be reluctant to take it prior to a game.

John from Neenah, WI

I was glad to see that you had employees and their families attend the Bears game. Why weren't players' families allowed to attend? Aren't the players also employees?

Good point, John. Actually, we considered extending the invitation to include players' families. The difference (and concern), though, is that most of the players' family members live outside of the area. This is especially true with our younger players. Our concern is that the family members would be flying into Green Bay from across the country and could present a risk to our players. If we do eventually have ticketed fans for games this year, we would provide tickets to players for their family members. In order to reduce the risk of our players contracting the virus, we would consider asking the family members to quarantine and be tested before spending time with their sons.

Bill from Syracuse, NY

I was surprised to see that our game against the Lions on Dec. 13 was moved to 3:25 p.m. Why would FOX want this game broadcast to a larger audience?

I was a little surprised, Bill, but not really that much. We normally have very strong ratings (as we have a national following), and this is especially true when we are having a winning season. You can tell how popular an NFL team is by the number of prime-time games it has on the schedule. Most coaches love the noon games because you get up and play, but if you are playing mostly noon games, you are not a very good team. With the Carolina game being set for Saturday night, Dec. 19, we will have six prime-time games this year. We will also play at least four games as the second game of the doubleheader (which is available in most of the country), and could have five depending on whether the Bears game in Week 17 is moved. Based on these numbers, the networks and the league obviously view the Packers as a team that delivers strong ratings.

Elliot from Minnesota

Dear Mr. Murphy, first off, I want to commend you for being willing to take on the difficult questions, and answering them thoughtfully, that are posed in this forum instead of backing away from them. I was wondering as someone who not only has to figure out solutions to the current issues, what are some of the long-term challenges that you may see in the sport and how do you go about solving them? Thanks for your time.

Thanks, Elliot, for a great question. Given how challenging it is to try to play football during a pandemic, it is hard not to focus solely on the current issues. I think the best organizations, though, always have an eye on the future. In my mind, strategic planning for the future is crucial to the success of any organization. In our planning process, we focus on the next three to five years. I think a major, long-term issue facing the NFL (and all sports) is whether people will come back to stadiums after the pandemic. In order to address these concerns, we will have to make the stadiums as safe as possible. Also, we need to ensure that the fans are having a great experience in the stadium – and that we are providing many of the same amenities that people are used to when they are watching the game on TV at home. The excellent quality of the at-home TV experience has been an issue for the league for several years, but I think the pandemic has exacerbated it. Obviously, another major, long-term issue facing the game is the safety of the players. All injuries are a concern, but especially concussions, due to the potential long-term issues related to concussions. The league has addressed this by passing over 50 safety-related rules in recent years. We have also worked closely with our players to show them the techniques they can use to play the game safely. If parents don't believe the game is safe, they will not allow their sons and daughters to play the game. This will impact the league not only by reducing the pipeline for potential players, but studies show that people that have played football are more likely to become avid fans.

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