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Inside the negotiations between the NFL and its players: The real issue remains money

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was among the players who questioned the NFL's safety plans.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was among the players who questioned the NFL's safety plans.Michael Wyke/Associated Press

The NFL’s players took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon to accuse the owners of not taking their health and safety seriously enough.

It turns out the players didn’t have too many issues with the health and safety protocols being developed by the league’s medical experts. Their gripe was actually about the economic impact of the pandemic, and a staunch refusal to play preseason games.

Monday evening the NFLPA and NFL owners signed off on the league’s COVID-19 testing protocols for the 2020 season. After four months, the NFL and NFLPA are done crafting seven different protocols related to health and safety of players and coaches.

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The testing protocol states that all football personnel — players, coaches and staff members who work directly with the team — will be tested every day during the first two weeks of the preseason. If the positive rate is below 5 percent after two weeks, testing will take place every other day.

But while the health and safety protocols are signed and delivered, the owners and NFLPA are still haggling over the economic impact of the pandemic, and training camp rules. Several important items are still being negotiated, including: How to smooth out a salary cap hit that could cost every team $70 million in cap space in 2021; how many preseason games will be played; the financial implications for players opting out of the season; whether players will would receive full salaries if the season is cut short; how soon players can wear pads in practice; and much more.

The players have been adamant about not having preseason games, and likely will get their wish. According to a league source, the owners’ latest proposal on Monday night included no preseason games, acquiescing to the players’ demand. Assuming the PA accepts this offer, the elimination of preseason games will certainly make it tougher for low draft picks and undrafted rookies to make an impact in training camp.

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Another part of the owners’ offer includes an 18-day acclimation period to contact in training camp — in other words, the first full-padded practice would take place on the 18th day of camp. In normal years, the pads wouldn’t go on until the seventh day. The NFLPA was proposing a lengthy build-up this year that would have kept pads off until the 31st day of camp, but a league source said the players have moved considerably on the issue.

Patriots' training camp figures to look different this summer than it has in previous years.
Patriots' training camp figures to look different this summer than it has in previous years.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Also included in the offer: Players would have until Aug. 1 to opt out of the season, though it is unclear if they are entitled to compensation and what would happen to their contracts.

The clock is ticking for the sides to agree on the final financial standoffs. Across the league, rookies are supposed to report on Tuesday, and full teams report on July 28.

Here’s a deeper look at other recent developments:

▪ The NFL has hired BioReference Laboratories to handle its entire testing system — the same company handling the NBA’s testing. BioReference will set up testing sites at all 32 team facilities, will manufacture all of the tests, and handle all the collecting and testing procedures.

“We thought it was important, along with the PA, to have a uniform standard across all 32 clubs, making sure that everyone was getting tested by the same methodology and the same exact protocols,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told me earlier this summer. “We think that makes a lot more sense, obviously, than a distributive response and trying to have everyone on their own.”

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A coordinated, centralized response to the pandemic that strives for consistency and efficiency. What a novel concept.

NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills believes it's important to "have a uniform standard across all 32 clubs, making sure that everyone was getting tested by the same methodology."
NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills believes it's important to "have a uniform standard across all 32 clubs, making sure that everyone was getting tested by the same methodology."David J. Phillip/Associated Press

▪ It will take most players until the fifth day of training camp to actually step foot inside the team facility. Players will be required to have two negative tests 72 hours apart before being cleared to enter. They will be tested on the first and fourth day, and will be required to self-quarantine at their hotel or home for the two days in between. If they pass both tests, they can enter the facility on the fifth day.

▪ The testing will be done by nasal swab, though it won’t be a “brain scraper” that prods all the way to the back of the nose. The league hopes to be able to switch to saliva testing in a month or two, but the tests aren’t reliable enough yet.

▪ During the initial four-day testing period, antibody testing, done by blood draw via a finger prick, is strongly encouraged but not required.

▪ Everyone that steps foot inside the building for football purposes — players, coaches, trainers, locker room attendants, but not business-side employees — will wear a tracking device all day long for contact tracing purposes. These Kinexon Proximity Recording devices will help a team determine which people were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. It has to be worn during practice, in meetings, on the team bus, and so on.

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▪ Because COVID-19 has such a wide range of effects on people, the NFL won’t require players to miss a standard number of games (i.e. it won’t be a two- or three-game minimum). A player who is positive but asymptomatic could return as quickly as five days if he gets two consecutive negative tests, meaning in theory he wouldn’t have to miss any games. A player who is positive and shows symptoms has to sit out at least 10 days, but may only have to miss one game.

▪ A player’s return to play also will include additional cardiac screening, and a progressive return to football activities over three days or seven days, depending on the severity of the infection.

▪ One major question: With some parts of the country struggling with their testing capacity, is it moral for the NFL to take up so many resources with daily testing?

“We have said from the very start of the pandemic that anything that we do, we want to make sure that we’re not having a negative impact on the public health situation,” Sills said. “We take that responsibility very seriously.”

Sills said that hiring a national testing company that has the capability to manufacture its own tests ensures that NFL teams won’t have to ask local hospitals for testing.

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“We set up the program with a national testing company specifically so that we did not have a negative impact on any of the team markets,” Sills said. “We’ve talked to the CDC, White House task force, a number of public health officials, infectious disease experts, national laboratory leaders: ‘Do you feel that our testing program as it’s currently conceived, that it would in any way have a negative impact on the country’s testing supply or the healthcare system at this time?’ And we’ve received unanimous response across the board that it would not have a negative impact.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin