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The NFL’s coronavirus protocols are working — so far: Four things we learned this week

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We spent weeks — months, even — reporting on the coronavirus protocols that the NFL and its players’ union negotiated for 2020 training camps. It has been more than three weeks now since those camps opened, and a few days since players started practicing in full pads. So it’s fair to wonder: How’s it going so far?

I spent a good chunk of my week asking that question of players, coaches and other officials around the league, and here are four things I found out:

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It seems to be going pretty well.

As of Thursday evening, there were only five players left on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list, which is not just for players who have tested positive but also those who have exhibited symptoms or come into contact with people who have tested positive or exhibited symptoms.

The players with whom I spoke said they feel safe at their team facilities and that they believe their teammates, coaches and other members of their organizations are taking the protocols seriously. Daily testing is an understandable annoyance, but it’s one they understand is necessary if they want to go to work. And while it makes some of them squeamish, there haven’t been any major issues regarding cooperation with testing or the contact-tracing devices the players and other team personnel have to wear while in the facilities.

The National Football League Players Association officials with whom I spoke said this matches the feedback they’ve been getting, and they believe having convinced the league to test daily is a big part of the comfort level. They’ve already extended the daily-testing window to Sept. 5 — it was originally supposed to last just the first two weeks of training camp unless positive test rates were over 5% — and multiple sources told me to expect the NFLPA to push for daily testing to be extended into the regular season as well.

The league and union will continue to monitor developments in the science around the virus, and there are a few who believe testing advancements such as the newly approved Yale saliva test could help make the league’s testing procedures even smoother and more effective. League officials said Wednesday that their emphasis would be on testing accuracy and efficiency, and as for the new saliva test itself, they will evaluate to see whether it can help, and likely implement it or something like it if it can.

Don’t expect to see many players wearing coronavirus-protection mouth shields.

Obviously I haven’t surveyed every player in the league or even close to that. But it doesn’t sound as though the veteran players are interested in wearing the Oakley mouth shields the league has provided for use with its helmets. Players were dubious about these back in June and July when they first came up, citing concerns about their potential effects on visibility and breathing, and the sense I get is that players aren’t keen on giving them a shot in practice.

One veteran player I asked about the mouth shields texted me, “Some of the rookies are using them lol.” Another said flatly, “Guys aren’t going to wear those things.” Players don’t generally take kindly to these kinds of changes. Remember a few years back, when the league tried to mandate hip and thigh pads and players got upset about those?

Even Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, admitted on a conference call Wednesday that the mouth shields haven’t been embraced to the extent that the league hoped. Sills said Oakley has gathered player feedback and is in the process of designing a version 2.0 of the mouth shields based on that feedback. But with no league-imposed mandate to wear them and a belief that the testing protocols are ensuring that all the players on the field are virus-free anyway, it’s unlikely they’ll gain popularity any time soon.

There’s a high level of confidence that the regular season will, at the very least, start on time.

Yes, this whole thing is potentially one individual’s bad decision away from unraveling. And yes, of course, the league is watching to see whether the positive test rate drifts upward now that players are actually on the field and practicing together. But the testing protocols allow teams to be certain that the players on the field don’t have the virus. And the first three to four weeks of training camp have convinced the league and its teams that they’re capable of reacting effectively to signs of COVID-19 and preventing it from spreading in their own facilities.

So, barring some sort of major outbreak or a significant worsening of conditions in the states and municipalities in which the NFL’s teams play, there’s optimism that the Thursday night opener between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs 20 days from now will be played as scheduled, with the rest of the league kicking off three and four days later. The question, of course, is what happens after that.

The regular season will offer new challenges.

While some teams have been able to maintain their own “bubbles,” the regular season will require them to travel to other cities to play games. And as extensive as the league’s travel protocols that went out to teams Wednesday are — with rules governing everything from seating layouts on buses and airplanes to procedures for entering and leaving the stadium on game day to how to order hotel room service — the movement of teams in and out of their protocol-protected bubbles will increase the risk of infection and transmission.

One of the great unanswered questions at this point is what happens if a team has some kind of outbreak on game day. The league is putting together an outside committee to advise commissioner Roger Goodell on issues such as when to cancel or postpone a game, but there’s no hard-and-fast guideline that says, “X number of positive tests on Saturday and/or Sunday means that team can’t play,” and there isn’t likely to be one.

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Adam Schefter reports on how a postseason bubble is an option the NFL could consider this season if needed.

The NFL is closely watching the way Major League Baseball is adjusting its schedule following positive tests. To this point, positive tests on the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets have forced postponements of games. Baseball is able to make up a lot of those games with seven-inning doubleheaders, which won’t be an available option for the NFL. But it’s entirely possible that, on a given Sunday, one or more NFL games won’t be able to be played for COVID-19-related reasons. If that happens, those games would need to be postponed to later in the week, or moved back in the season to mutual bye weeks. If it happens enough, large chunks of the NFL schedule might need to be altered on the fly or even canceled. The possibility of some teams ending the season having played more games than others isn’t completely farfetched.

The league is going to have to be flexible. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton brought up in a recent competition committee call the possibility of playing in an NBA-style “bubble” once the playoffs start, but it’s unclear at this point whether that’s possible, and the people I asked about it Wednesday and Thursday all said some variation of, “That’s too far away to even worry about right now.”

Bottom line: Things have gone well so far. Maybe even better than many expected. Compared to MLB, the NFL believes its system of daily testing and rapid isolation of positive or symptomatic personnel is so far protecting it from major disruption. Compared to college football, the NFL and NFLPA believe they’ve shown a level of leadership and collaboration that gives them a chance to actually pull this off. The season seems more likely than ever to start on time.

But no one is interested in taking a victory lap. Getting through the season and actually completing it remains the goal, and there’s no way for the NFL to know whether it can do that until it actually has.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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