The N.F.L. on Thursday canceled its annual Hall of Fame Game, an exhibition scheduled for Aug. 6, so players and coaches grappling with restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic could have more time to prepare for the regular season, which, for now, is still set to begin Sept. 10.
The decision, by team owners in an ad hoc teleconference, gave the league flexibility to push back, if needed, the start of training camps. Starting in late July, teams are expected to begin welcoming players to their facilities.
The league and the players’ union are also discussing other measures, including further trimming the preseason schedule, which consists of four games per team.
Still, Roger Goodell, the league commissioner, said the N.F.L. was committed to starting the regular season on time and, if allowed by state and local officials, having fans in the seats at games.
The most immediate hurdle, though, is preparing for training camps. While the league has established safety protocols that have allowed front office members and coaches to return to their offices, the N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association have not agreed on a set of guidelines, including testing and quarantines, to govern the return of players. “Obviously, there’s a lot more to do,” Goodell said.
Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said in a conference call with reporters after the meeting that the N.F.L. was in “very active discussions” with the players’ union on screening, travel and a “very ambitious” testing program, though “testing alone is not going to be sufficient to keep everyone healthy.”
“This is all about risk reduction,” he added. “We know we can’t eliminate risk.”
Unlike other professional leagues whose seasons were interrupted by the pandemic in March, the N.F.L. has been able to conduct most of its normal off-season activities, including free agency, the draft and off-season workouts, remotely rather than in person.
The league did, however, cancel its annual meeting in late March and has said its slate of regular-season games overseas will be moved back to the United States.
Training camps will be particularly critical this year because coaches were not able to work directly with new draft picks, players acquired via trades, free agents invited to work out and other new players in April and June. The new collective bargaining agreement that was signed in mid-March allows teams to add two players, increasing the roster size to 55 from 53.
The union and the league are discussing the possibility of increasing the size of rosters even more to make it easier to find substitutes for players who are infected with the coronavirus and must go into quarantine.
Teams must report to training camp 47 days before their first regular-season game. For the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, who open the season on Sept. 10, that means reporting on July 25. Other teams would be required to start training camp by July 28.
The league has said that to maintain competitive balance, all teams must open training camp at the same time. Doing so may mean pushing back the start of training camp because the number of infections has been rising in several states, including Arizona, Florida and Texas, that host N.F.L. teams.
The number of players who have been infected is also growing. Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ star running back, confirmed that he tested positive for the coronavirus this month. Other members of the Cowboys, as well as staff members and players from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Houston Texans, the Los Angeles Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have also reportedly tested positive. Von Miller, the star linebacker on the Denver Broncos, said in April that he had tested positive, while New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton also tested positive.
Some players, including Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady, have been flouting the union’s social distancing recommendations by practicing in groups without wearing personal protective equipment, or P.P.E. On Thursday, Brady posted a photo of a workout to his Instagram account with a paraphrased quotation from Franklin D. Roosevelt that read, “Only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
Alarmed by rising infection rates and informal practices, the players’ union’s medical director, Thom Mayer, sent a message to players last week urging them not to participate in group workouts during the off-season.
While other leagues, like the N.B.A. and M.L.S., plan for players, coaches and staff to live and work in an enclosed community, the N.F.L. has announced no such plans. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s highest ranking specialist in infectious diseases, cast doubt on the N.F.L.’s approach.
“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN last week.
With so many unanswered questions about how to begin training camp safely, the owners have bought themselves some time by eliminating the Hall of Fame Game.