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NFL Wants Draft To Symbolize A Return To Normal Amid Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tonight, the NFL draft begins. Its an annual ritual where talented college players get picked by teams with visions of playoff glory. Last year's draft had to be held virtually, but this one is in person along the lake shore in Cleveland. NPR's Tom Goldman reports the NFL wants this to symbolize a return to normal.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Normal has its limits this week in Cleveland. Fans will be able to wander around the sprawling outdoor NFL draft site, but their numbers are capped at 50,000 a day. That will allow for social distancing with a face mask, and it will be enforced.

DAVID GILBERT: People will be asked to leave if they aren't following the protocols.

GOLDMAN: That's David Gilbert, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. He says about 5,000 fans will be allowed into an area close to the covered stage where the draft takes place.

GILBERT: And all of the people in that area will have to have been vaccinated.

GOLDMAN: More normal is the actual draft. There will be 13 NFL prospects at the event. They'll hear their names called, come up on stage and, as in past years, hug, high five or chest bump league commissioner Roger Goodell. He's been vaccinated, so he's protected against the virus, although not necessarily against an overzealous 300-pound lineman. Here's NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

BRIAN MCCARTHY: Put yourself in the shoes of these young men who are hearing some of the most exciting news they'll ever have in their life. And sometimes it is spontaneous, and it's part of the draft.

GOLDMAN: Last year, those moments were missing with Goodell in his basement and athletes in their homes. That virtual event was strange but revealing. Fans got to watch general managers' kids hanging out with their dad and New England head coach Bill Belichick's dog sitting on a chair in front of Belichick's laptop.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But there you see a canine resemblance for Bill Belichick.

GOLDMAN: This draft, the NFL says, it will combine the energy of an in-person event with the intimacy of last year. Forty-five prospects will be in their homes. Cameras will peek inside team draft rooms. Maybe a dog will wander by. The NFL's McCarthy says officials didn't spend a second contemplating another fully virtual event. That makes the NFL unique among major pro sports leagues.

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CATHY ENGELBERT: In reflecting a year ago as the pandemic was just beginning - and yes, I'm happy not to be in my living room this year...

GOLDMAN: Earlier this month, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert opened her league's draft in a TV studio. But for the second straight year, the event was virtual; the National Hockey League draft in July will be, too. The NBA hasn't decided with its July draft. If there's concern that the NFL is being hasty or reckless, Dr. James Merlino doesn't agree. He leads a team at the Cleveland Clinic that helps businesses stay safe during the pandemic. He's not involved with the draft effort, but as a Cleveland Browns season ticket holder, Merlino says he saw firsthand last season how serious the NFL is about COVID.

JAMES MERLINO: They were very good at the protocols. They enforced them. And you got two chances to wear your mask. And if people wouldn't comply, they would remove them from the stadium.

GILBERT: The NFL notes its protocols worked at keeping February's Super Bowl in Tampa from becoming a superspreader event. Florida public health researchers say the game and events surrounding it didn't significantly contribute to new COVID cases. And so the NFL and Cleveland will come out and celebrate, not the end of a pandemic but, says city booster David Gilbert, certainly some bright light at the end of the tunnel. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.