NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Derrick Henry was seen jogging on the field with his daughter after practice. The Green Bay Packers are once again borrowing children’s bikes for practice. Fans rub shoulders with their favorite players to get those coveted autographs.
Yes, the NFL looks and acts like it’s essentially back to normal for its third season in the face of COVID-19.
There are no more trailers or tents for testing, and masks are scarce. In fact, the protocols designed and refined by the league and the NFL Players Association in 2020 and 2021 were suspended last March.
The NFL appears to be following the lead of the CDC, which last week dropped social distancing and quarantine requirements, with about 95% of Americans 16 and older gaining some level of immunity from vaccinations or infections.
The league still wants anyone with possible symptoms to speak up and wear a mask after contact with someone with COVID-19. A positive test always means self-isolating at home for at least five days.
“I think we’re still concerned about everyone’s safety, our own and the health of our families,” Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel said, adding that 2½ years into the pandemic: “Hopefully we’re past that.”
The biggest changes have been most noticeable during NFL training camps: fans are back and close enough to high-five and shake hands with players, no longer held at a distance and happy to resume pre-season traditions.
The players are happy to have fans fully back, grateful for the boost of energy during the monotonous routine and long camp days.
“It’s huge,” Packers running back Aaron Jones said. “The fans are everything. That’s what makes football work, and I’d say it’s one of the best traditions in football, bike rides. I’ve had the same little cyclist since I arrived, I’ve also brought my son to training with me, so that’s special for me.
The Packers were among the teams that allowed fans to watch training camp practices remotely in 2021, although no player interaction was allowed.
The cheers are welcome after the relative silence of the past two years when the only sounds were the thump of pads, coaches yelling and sometimes music on the speakers to simulate fan noise. Families of players, coaches and team staff were also unable to attend, leaving them unable to steal a few minutes from work with their children or spouses.
Henry’s daughter Valentina, now 2, is the perfect age to enjoy running with her dad into an end zone after early practice at camp. The two-time NFL running champion said it was the kind of moment his daughter could watch when she was older.
“Having those moments is always precious, especially with your kids, but just being at football and training camp takes up a lot of time,” Henry said. “But whenever you have a moment like this, you always cherish those moments and something that we can look back on and laugh at and enjoy.”
Vaccinations relaxed protocols from 2020 when teammates had to keep 6 feet apart and coaches wore masks on the field, whether in practices or games, whether teams either indoors or outdoors. Titans center Ben Jones said that meant friends sat apart for breakfast and lunch, which made it difficult to build team chemistry and camaraderie.
“It gave me a lot of challenges, me being a guy trying to get five guys on the same page to get it spread out,” Ben Jones recalled. “That’s not what you want. As a team guy, as a leader, you want as many guys as close together as possible so you can impact them.
Signs of social distancing have disappeared. The same goes for mandatory testing, which saves time each morning spent waiting for a positive or negative result.
No NFL regular season games have been canceled in the past two seasons due to the pandemic, although many have been moved to 2020 with the entire preseason scrapped. About 95% of players and nearly 100% of team personnel have been vaccinated, the league reported.
The Titans had the first outbreak of the 2020 season and Vrabel tested positive in the 2021 preseason at the start of another outbreak for the team.
Other professional leagues are also adjusting protocols;
– Major League Baseball dropped regular COVID-19 testing for all but symptomatic individuals before the start of the 2022 season.
– The NHL plans no testing for symptom-free players, coaches and staff with locker rooms open to members of the media. Like the NBA and MLB, unvaccinated people will not be able to cross the border between the United States and Canada, although the NHL has only a few players and assistant coaches in this category.
— The NBA has not revealed its full policy for the upcoming season. Commissioner Adam Silver said last month that he expects continued movement towards normality: “I have learned over the past 2 1/2 years not to make predictions when it comes to COVID, but only to say that we will be ready for whatever comes our way.”
AP professional football writer Josh Dubow, AP basketball writer Tim Reynolds, AP hockey writers Stephen Whyno and John Wawrow, and AP sportswriters Steve Megargee and Jake Seiner contributed to this report.
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