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NFL shortens preseason to just two weeks as league continues to plot its 2020 strategy

The NFL has taken its next step in adjusting its calendar to prepare for a return to action amid the coronavirus pandemic

The NFL has shortened its 2020 preseason to two games, a source said, part of a larger acclimatization plan for players following an unprecedented virtual offseason program during the coronavirus pandemic.

In essence, the league canceled Weeks 1 and 4 of its original preseason calendar. It had previously canceled its Aug. 8 Hall of Fame game. Most players will still report to training camp on July 28, but the first preseason matches won’t be played until Aug. 20-24. The second week of preseason games are scheduled for Aug. 27-31. Each team will play one home game and one on the road.

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Teams that travel will depart on the day before games.

The primary driver for restructuring the preseason was a consensus between the NFL and NFL Players Association that players will need more time than normal to get in football shape this summer.

No teams were able to practice on the field during the offseason, and many gyms and other conditioning settings have been closed. The NFL’s standard preseason has been four games since it was shortened from six games in 1978. It is expected to be cut further when owners activate a provision in the collective bargaining agreement to extend the regular season to 17 games, which they can do as early as 2021.

When that happens, the preseason would shrink to no more than three games for each team. Of more immediate worry, however, is the health of players during training camp in 2020.

The NFL/NFLPA committee will soon issue a set of guidelines that spells out an acclimatization program for the 23 days of training camp prior to the first preseason game.

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NHL teams clear to reopen facilities Monday in Phase 2 of return to play plan

The National Hockey League is transitioning to Phase 2 of its return-to-play plan, as teams will be allowed to reopen training facilities in their cities on Monday if local regulations allow it.

On a “strictly voluntary basis,” players can participate in small-group team training, with a maximum of six players at one time plus a limited number of staff members in the facility. This training will include small group sessions for on-ice workouts for players only, with no coaches or other team personnel allowed on the ice. Players must wear face coverings at all times in the facility, except when exercising or on the ice.

Many NHL players haven’t skated since the league paused its regular campaign on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NHL said teams can immediately start preparation for the players’ return, including the planning of medical tests and education sessions about new safety protocols.

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In late May, the NHL circulated a document to teams detailing how training facilities should reopen to maximize player health and safety. Everyone involved in Phase 2 will be administered a laboratory-based reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test 48 hours before they can participate.

If local testing capacity allows, everyone participating in Phase 2 will be tested “at least twice weekly” afterward, according to the NHL. Players will check their temperatures daily and will have their temperatures checked before entering the facilities. They’ll also keep a log of temperatures and any symptoms that could signal a COVID-19 infection.

The return to training facilities is a major step toward the opening of NHL training camps in July, ahead of what the league hopes is a return to conclude the season at two hub cities in a previously announced postseason format.

The NHLPA voted to approve that format, but has yet to vote on an actual return to the ice. The NHLPA will receive feedback from players during this return to training facilities. The feedback will help with negotiations about training camp regulations and issues regarding what life could be like in those hub cities.

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NFL to allow teams to open facilities on Tuesday with several restrictions

A memo from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to all 32 NFL teams states franchises can start reopening their facilities with strict guidelines starting May 19 as long as state and local regulations permit them to do so.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network provided the memo Friday, and Goodell wrote the following in part in his announcement of the news: “Clubs may reopen their facilities beginning on May 19 if they are permitted to do so under governing state and local regulations, are in compliance with any additional public health requirements in their jurisdiction, and have implemented the protocols that were developed by [NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills] and distributed to all clubs on May 6.”

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Of note, clubs cannot have more than 50 percent of their staffs (and a max of 75 people) inside the facility at the same time. If a franchise wishes to spread out over multiple locations, the max number of people allowed still stays at 75 over all locations combined.

Coaches are not allowed to return to facilities in an effort to promote competitive equity among all 32 teams, some of which will not be able to travel back to headquarters May 19.

Players also cannot go to the facility unless they are rehabbing an injury or receiving treatment. “Customer-facing activities,” with examples including ticket and merchandise sales, are not permitted yet.

Teams must also report any case of COVID-19 to the league. The NFL news follows reports that NBA facilities have started to reopen, with a handful of teams doing so on Friday, May 8. Like the NFL, the NBA is also under heavy restriction, although players are allowed to work out on an individual basis.

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NBA to open practice facilities

The NBA will reportedly allow teams to open their practice facilities again beginning on May 1, more than six weeks after it suspended operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teams will be allowed to re-open those facilities only if their respective local governments have eased stay-at-home orders, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

There were more than 926,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States as of Saturday afternoon, according to The New York Times, and millions of Americans are still under some form of a stay-at-home order — many of which have been extended past May 1. 

Teams will not be authorized to require players to work out at their facilities, but rather will let them do so on a voluntary basis.

No organized team activities or group workouts will be allowed, either.

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While some markets will have lifted or significantly loosened stay-at-home restrictions by that date, many will still be implemented past that date — including both New York teams and the four California franchises. The NBA, per Wojnarowski, will work with teams unable to open their facilities directly in order to make sure every player has the opportunity to safely practice again.

Many players had been asking their teams about traveling to Georgia to workout, too, per the report. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has allowed certain businesses in the state to re-open this week — a decision that has drawn criticism, even from President Donald Trump — including gyms. The league, however, made it clear it doesn’t want players working out at public fitness centers there.

Though it appears that this is the first step to resuming the season in some form, the league is “still unsure” when it will play again, if at all, per Wojnarowski.  NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last week that the league is “not in a position to make any decisions” about what the rest of the season may look like, but that “everything is on the table.”

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UCLA Chris Smith enter NBA draft

UCLA junior Chris Smith is entering the 2020 NBA draft, he told ESPN on Tuesday.

“I’m 100% committed to the process and am excited to see what the future holds,” Smith stated.

Smith, the No. 72 prospect in the ESPN Top 100, is coming off a breakout season, earning Pac-12 Most Improved Player and All-Pac-12 first-team honors.

The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per match for the Bruins, helping his team recover from a poor start to finish the campaign 12-6 in the Pac-12. UCLA was the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament prior to it being canceled.

Smith enrolled at UCLA as a 17-year-old and is the youngest junior in the ESPN 100; he is younger than most sophomores and even some freshman projected to be drafted, having only turned 20 in late December.

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He is intriguing to NBA teams not only due to his age, but also his versatility.

He has perimeter skill, making 35% of his 3-pointers this campaign and 85% of his free throws. Defensively, he was regularly tasked with defending opposing guards, doing a better job of buying into using his tools more regularly as the season moved on under Mick Cronin, one of the reasons UCLA won nine of its last 11 games.

The NBA draft is programmed for June 25, but following worldwide suspensions of basketball activities during the coronavirus pandemic, NBA front-office executives and others in the industry told ESPN they are bracing for the potential impact of a delayed 2020 draft with a heavily reduced pre-draft process.

A player like Smith would be highly sought for private workouts and interviews, as teams would surely like to get a better handle on the likelihood of him reaching his untapped potential.

The NBA informed teams on Monday that organizations are prohibited from conducting in-person workouts or interviews with draft-eligible players until further notice.

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NBA to pay players full salaries due April 1

The NBA and its players are in a very difficult financial situation. With matches suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak, teams have no revenue incoming.

Players have guaranteed contracts, though, so the two sides have to sort out how to approach this crisis in a manner satisfactory to all involved. While no long-term plan has been made, the NBA took a short-term step to appease the players on Friday.

Teams will pay players their next scheduled check on April 1, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 

Typical NBA contracts spell out payments on the first and 15th of every month during the season, though different pay schedules can be spelled out within individual contracts.

That means that, for the most part, the league’s next payday after April 1 would have come on April 15.

The league will give teams “additional guidance” on that payday in the near future.

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While short-term solutions are necessary, the league has a bigger long-term problem to solve if it hopes to settle its finances. As it presently sits, the owners stand to take the brunt of the fall for lost games.

While salaries are guaranteed in advance through contracts, the cap is based on projected revenue. The league didn’t build coronavirus into its plans, so players had been set to be paid as if this was a normal season. 

The league has tools it can use to force a compromise. All player contracts have force majeure clauses that allow teams to withhold 1/92.6th of their salary for every canceled game, and 10 percent of player salaries are held in escrow in case players wind up earning more in a given season than the CBA allows. That means that, in all likelihood, the players and the league will work together to find a compromise that splits the burden of these lost matches evenly among both sides.

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