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The technological challenges for 49ers, NFL teams as draft goes ‘fully virtual’



Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The National Football League does not want to postpone the draft. As of April 6, the league still plans on it being hosted virtually, from April 23-25. The league also says it expects the season to start on time and to be played in full, in front of fans.

Jeff Pash, who is the league’s executive vice president/general counsel, affirmed multiple times that the league is expecting to go ahead with the season, with fans, in full, in a March 31 conference call with reporters.

All of our discussions, all of our focus has been on a normal, traditional season starting on time, playing in front of fans in our regular stadiums and going through a full 16-game regular season, and a full set of playoffs,” said Pash on Tuesday. “That’s our focus.”

The NFL’s swift (and necessary) abandonment of draft normalcy

As for the draft, the NFL gave up on its plan to host it in person in Las Vegas on March 15. Then, on March 31st, it initially outlined a very general, sort of nebulous structure for how it planned to move forward. Peter O’Reilly, the league’s executive vice president of club business and league events, described it as “hub and spoke.”

“There will be a hub where the commissioner will make pick announcements on night 1, and then there will connectivity to 32 club locations, video connectivity via phones into the homes of approximately 50 prospects, and the opportunity to hopefully pull in some fans virtually, as well as current and former players virtually from their homes to this hub and spoke model,” O’Reilly said.

O’Reilly stressed four tenets of the draft on the call:

  1. Equitability, efficiency and safety for all involved parties
  2. Celebrating the life-changing nature of being drafted for draftees
  3. Engaging with fans
  4. Using the draft to support and raise money “for those most vulnerable and impacted in our communities”

That plan came to a startlingly quick halt, for obvious reasons. The framework for the “fully virtual” alternative was proposed on April 2, just two days later, as the NFL set the stage to completely change course from that 10-person war room setup, and potentially go all-in on all-virtual. That is, teams conducting the draft entirely from home and draftees being honored in a Madden 20 moment with the commissioner and their likeness.

As shown in the memo below posted by ESPN’s Dianna Russini, there were two scenarios, each flawed in some way, with the second, safer option clearly provided as a way for the league to change course.

As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported was likely on April 5, the NFL will embrace the second scenario, officially announcing so on April 6.

Per a team spokesman, the 49ers said they had been preparing for all circumstances.

Scenario No. 1 was never possible

There was scenario No. 1, which was to have teams conduct the draft at their facility assuming it is “both safe and legally compliant” or an off-site location “provided that such activity is permissible by law and in compliance with the mandatory guidelines issued by Dr. [Allen] Sills,” with a 10-person maximum, and 6-foot buffers between each person in the room. The Saints, under this first scenario, rented out a brewery to host the draft.

This scenario was and is in direct violation to local and state orders. The 49ers are not viewed as an essential business by the state of California, nor the county of Santa Clara (also the case for sports organizations in San Francisco County) as confirmed by KNBR. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a team facility, a bar, or a staff member’s house; the 49ers cannot congregate as a team for the draft, or any other purpose, in this state.

That was before the NFL, in the name of safety and equity, decided against that first option.

Could they have gone to another state? Well, Nevada was technically an option until its order on April 1. The only remaining U.S. states without any stay-at-home orders, either at the statewide or local levels, as of April 7, are Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. But laws and orders are being instituted by the day, and traveling to another state would defeat the purpose of social distancing, which the 49ers have stressed is an organizational and human priority for them.

In a phone conversation with Amesh Adalja, M.D., Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, and member of the NCAA coronavirus panel, Adalja told KNBR that trying to enforce a 6-foot buffer between 10 people in a confined room can be difficult from a practical standpoint, let alone with the added celebratory atmosphere of a draft, in which team members often high-five, shake hands, hug, etc.

Could everyone have been tested and quarantined while they wait for the results? Not with 100 percent assured safety.

Pash, in that March 31st conference call, said the league didn’t “want to use a disproportionate number of testing resources if it’s limited. We want to make sure that we’re testing people in an appropriate way if we do it and have clear and consistent standards. I think that we very much would take our guidance on that from the medical and public health experts.”

Even if teams were tested, Adalja said there’s the very substantial possibility of false negatives, due to the up to 14-day incubation period of the virus which is “when somebody is exposed to the virus and when they display symptoms.” Someone may test negative and three hours later have incubated the virus fully and be present with symptoms and test positive, even after just testing negative.

In terms of a test-then-quarantine process before the draft, them having only those 10 war room personnel interact with each other,” Adalja said, “I don’t know that you could actually do that.”

The main test available is a nasal test via a swab, which then examines the genetic material of the virus. Most, according to Adalja, tend to take a couple of hours, with some rapid tests that provide results in minutes and are currently being “scaled up.” These tests may not show positives because of the incubation period of the virus, a test being conducted improperly, or, for example a nasal sample not showing results, but a lung sample might.

“It’s not ironclad,” Adalja said.

The reason this scenario is being detailed here, despite the NFL making the correct choice to do away with it, is because this was the NFL’s draft plan exactly a week ago. With the same data available, same apparent discussions with doctors and the CDC, and knowledge of state and local laws, the NFL had this tentative plan in place, knowing it lacked any shred of viability.

Scenario No. 2 is possible, but flawed

Scenario No. 2 is the far more responsible option, but it could provide technological complications if the draft remains on its current schedule. That scenario would be “totally remote (personal residences, with a clear prohibition on any number of club personnel gathering in one residence).”

That means, for three days, a constant, private feed between teams, so they can communicate their draft needs, with constant phone line communications between the NFL. And where does TV and live-streaming come into all of this? Will the NFL still maintain its hub?

Clearly that option shouldn’t prescribe IT technicians to be on hand in these private residences, so what happens if a connection is lost? What if John Lynch’s internet goes out at his home? How does the NFL remedy that and create a framework that teams can all agree upon in three weeks?

According to Schefter, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has posed technological concerns about the all-virtual draft, something ESPN’s Dianni Russini said was echoed in talks with head coaches around the league.

KNBR discussed these issues with two experts on internet bandwidth and technology infrastructure: Mark Hung, Vice President of Technology and Engineering at Wi-Fi Alliance, and Dave Chen, Senior Manager with Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.

Chen explained via email that there are four main concerns teams will have to deal with:

  1. Security. Ensuring that only authorized users are connected to the network and that the devices they are using are up to sufficient security standards (AV setting, personal firewalls, etc.).
  2. Performance. Since video is involved, the network must have enough bandwidth to carry large amounts of traffic.
  3. Management. Even though participants are remote, a central IT team must have visibility into the network operation to find and fix problems quickly.
  4. Ease of setup. Whatever network is put in place, in this environment of social distancing it cannot require hands-on setup. The configuration of existing systems is a likely scenario.

How can teams secure their networks?

According to Hung, start with utilizing a WPA3 connection (an added level of security over the traditional WPA2 connection most people use for their home WiFi networks) as well as a virtual private network (VPN).

As Chen wrote: “A VPN is constructed by using public networks (e.g. the Internet) to provide remote users secure access to a protected internal network hub. This network uses encryption to ensure that only authorized users can access the network and that the data cannot be intercepted.”

The same suggestion was also provided by Hung, who said ensuring the video conferencing software chosen by teams is also crucial. As the FBI and New York state attorney general warned, there have been issues with Zoom being “bombed” with hackers who get into the conference and show whatever image/video they like to. These issues, Hung said, are at the “application level” where direct, person-to-person connection and information sharing happens.

Because IT professionals won’t likely be allowed on hand during the draft, Chen said that they can monitor each user’s network with analytics tools and potentially provide sensors to each team member who will be involved, in order to ensure that network performance is being monitored live for each user.

While Chen said NFL teams will have their own controls in place to manage bandwidth, performance and security over audio, video, internet, etc., every piece of technology involved needs to be tested and monitored. That means monitoring the home network, computer, headset, etc. all being used, as well as the connection, for those who need it, to the NFL.

These measures are all viable, but take preparation, testing and setup. Because there is already infrastructure in place for teams, and they have been conducting business remotely, teams have a head start on this. But whether that roughly two-week timeframe will be enough for teams to confidently prepare to host video with their teams, remain in constant contact with the league office, and potentially be involved in live broadcasting video, is unclear.

This is also without mentioning the NFL’s intention, as stated on that March 31 conference call, to have roughly 50 select prospects live broadcasted. This happens every year with a select few, but it’s unclear what type of protocol will be in place with that many prospects, and with a league-mandated 10-person restriction at each location.

Hung, who made clear his expertise is more internet connectivity oriented rather than with regards to television broadcasting, said he believes the draft can be done in the abbreviated window.

“I think purely from a communications perspective, it’s definitely doable,” Hung said. He pointed to the main concern being internet going down and teams being unable to communicate and put in their pick, which is where the need for a traditional telephone connection comes in. “I think as long as every location has both a POTS (plain old telephone service) line and also an internet connection, I think you’re good to go. It may not be as flashy as the class in the past but it should get the job done.”

The NFL may need to come to grips with reality in terms of broadcasting and adopt an approach similar to the MLB Draft (although the MLB does not permit trading draft picks). It’s a minimalist setup with a few broadcasters on hand and picks being called in to the league, where they are announced in studio. No fans, no live broadcasts of teams (which would basically be a weird, home broadcast of a general manager or head coach).

The nitty gritty of draft selections and trades would get done behind the scenes, with a limited broadcast of the commissioner announcing that information and a broadcasters conducting the live breakdown and broadcast from their own homes.

The rest of the offseason

The 49ers organization has been operating remotely, as mandated by the statewide shelter-in-place order (which was preceded by multiple Bay Area county orders), as demonstrated by general manager John Lynch, who posted this video below as insight into how the draft process is being conducted. As The Athletic’s Matt Barrows reported, the organization is conducting Zoom interviews with prospects.

Many NFL general managers have reportedly been upset about the league’s insistence on keeping the draft in its current slot, and they’re right to be. There is no rush whatsoever to get this done.

As outlined by Pash in the Tuesday conference calls, the league is already looking into the probability of offseason programs being conducted remotely. Zoom meetings between new draftees and coaches, workouts via a live meeting.

In theory, great, but try telling 32 coaching staffs they have to run their installs via online meetings, that there won’t be persistent technical difficulties, that it’s safe (again, the FBI and New York attorney general have warned that Zoom can be hacked). How do you install complex offensive terminology, plays, and the minutiae, like footwork, hand placement, eye positioning, remotely and start the season on time and run it in full?

You can’t.

NFL training camps don’t begin until the second half of July. Yes, teams need to install language and get workouts in before then, and the longer the draft gets delayed, the more that gets pushed back.

The NFL is set on starting the season on time. The league seems to believe it can bulldoze its way through a global pandemic so that it’s multi-billion-dollar product is ready to arrive on time. Hence, the refusal to postpone. Once you’ve postponed one event, you’ve set a precedent, and that’s not something the league is willing to do just yet.

Free agency was different. It’s a fluid situation, not on a clock. Many closed-door, not-so-legal meetings with agents took place at the Combine, where deals and trades took shape before the free agent period even opened. Many of the remaining moves could be done remotely because there is an extended timeline.

Still, signings are running into hiccups because physicals can’t be done in person. But for the most part, the open-ended nature of free agency allowed it to continue in a reasonable manner. Documents can be faxed or emailed, medical information can be shared digitally.

The draft is a three-day, intensive affair. In-person communication is crucial to success. If you have to create an entirely new communication system, with which teams are unfamiliar, you need adequate time to prepare. The draft is just over two weeks out and teams only found out how they could organize themselves on April 6.

While, as Hung stated, this is technologically viable even with the brief timeline to the draft, there are a number of other factors for teams. They still need to interview players and study film relentlessly, while simultaneously be establishing a framework to participate in the draft.

It begs the question, not whether each team can set up a viable way to connect with staff and the league office in that timeframe, but whether each team and the league can confidently set up a safe, equitable, and efficient approach for each individual involved, along with a reasonable protocol and framework for potential technological issues and disadvantages.

Given that, as Hung and Chen mentioned, internet connections vary based on where you are in the country, there is no way to ensure that complete equitability is in place. You cannot ensure each team has the same upload and download speed, even from person to person, and therefore, there may be an inherent advantage to teams near metro areas, where internet service tends to be better.

It’s a reality that’s unavoidable, and thus it’s one of the issues, along with security, that the NFL must openly and objectively present to teams over the next two weeks. The league seems to be fully set on holding the draft from April 23-25. Now, it must make sure teams are prepared for the worst-case scenarios and there in protocols in place should those worst cases become reality in a live setting which determines the long-term fate of franchises’ success.