NFL 'Preparing to Play Football in Fall,' Says New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft confirmed the NFL is on track to begin the season as expected this fall and suggested ensuring the safety of the fans was part of the protocols the league was working on.

While the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA and the NHL to suspend their seasons and the MLB to postpone Opening Day by a few months, the NFL has been less affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The league had to hold its draft behind closed doors last month and training facilities are yet to reopen, but there is optimism the season will get underway as expected.

The NFL plans to begin the season as scheduled on September 10 and earlier this month released a full 256-game schedule for the regular season. Speaking to Sean Hannity on FOX News on Tuesday night, Kraft offered some details of the negotiations and expressed optimism football will indeed begin this fall.

"We're preparing to hopefully play football this fall," the Patriots owner said. "We're working hand-in-hand with our [players] union [...] We believe we're developing protocols that allow us to do it in a safe way, looking out first for our players and our personnel, and then of course, the fans. I believe we can do it."

The Patriots owner has led a number of COVID-19 relief efforts, including flying 1.8 million masks from China on the team's plane last month, which were subsequently distributed to health care workers in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island.

Kraft also auctioned off his Super Bowl LI ring, raising $1.02 million which he donated to the All in Challenge relief effort.

"I'm happy to say a Patriot fan who wants to be anonymous right now bought it," he told Hannity. "But I hope will come public with it [in the future]."

While Kraft did not delve into details over any timeline the NFL may follow to allow fans back into the stadium, the prospect of spectators packing arenas is remote.

New England Patriots, Bob Kraft
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft looks on prior to Super Bowl LIV between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium on February 2 in Miami, Florida. Maddie Meyer/Getty

As it stands, it appears a foregone conclusion that the 32 franchises will have to play behind closed doors to meet social distancing measures.

On Tuesday, the NHL announced the playoffs will be played in two selected hubs and the NBA is expected to follow suit, with games set to be held at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

A similar arrangement would be logistically impossible for the NFL but while teams are expected to play at their regular stadiums, they will in all likelihood do so behind closed doors.

However, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he believed fans will be allowed into stadiums once the NFL season begins, despite the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"I think there definitely will be a football season this year," he said during an interview with CNBC on Tuesday morning. "[The] real question is, will there be fans in the stadium? Right now—today—we're planning to have fans in the stadium."

Before the NFL released its schedule earlier this month, league commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the 32 franchises listing the protocols to reopen training facilities that have to be in place by May 15.

In the document, which was obtained by the Associated Press, Goodell added the league was already working on the second phase of the protocols, but plans had yet to be finalized.

The NFL is understood to be eager to get the wheels turning and will, in all likelihood, follow the example set by NHL and NBA. Both sports have given teams the green light to return to training, provided players do so in small groups to begin with.

The numbers of players and non-playing personnel allowed in training facilities at any one time is expected to gradually increase over time as the league moves through the different steps of its protocol.

While the NFL is ramping up plans to launch training camps later this summer, earlier this month Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), warned football provided the ideal environment for coronavirus to be transmitted.

"Sweat as such won't transmit it," he was quoted as saying by NBC's Peter King in his Football Morning in America column. "But if people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that's the perfect set up for spreading."

As of Wednesday morning, over 1.68 million cases of coronavirus have been reported in the U.S., by far the highest tally of any country in the world.

Almost 99,000 deaths have been recorded in the U.S. and almost 385,000 people have recovered, according to Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the outbreak using combined data sources.

More than 350,800 people have died globally since the outbreak of coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan city, in China's central Hubei province, late last year. There have been over 5.6 million confirmed cases globally.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of COVID-19 across the U.S.

Coronavirus Cases in the U.S. Statista
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. by state as of May 27, 2020. Statista