Back in May, as it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic was not going away anytime soon, businesses across the country were given a choice: Risk the spread of a deadly virus or lose money. As you might expect from a society falling apart at the seams, the latter was the prevailing choice. Some businesses have been able to operate safely without posing a significant threat to their employees or customers. Others haven’t.
Sports leagues were no different. The NBA, NHL and MLB scrambled to find ways to return to play, all while the NFL sat back in gleeful ignorance, a luxury they would not be afforded for long. Their previous season finished just before COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. In many ways, the pandemic didn’t have much of an impact on the NFL through the first few months of the shutdown. With actual games being a no-go in the early days of the coronavirus, the other leagues had nothing interesting to do that would captivate fans, and thus, the NFL remained the center of attention.
The NBA tried to televise a Zoom-powered H.O.R.S.E. competition on ESPN, but it lacked production quality and a sense of real competition or stakes. Meanwhile, the NFL could operate as if it was business as usual with the cancellation of offseason workouts being the only real casualty. The draft and free agency required minor technological adjustments, but became as compelling as ever with Tom Brady and Joe Burrow driving the headlines. Fans desperate for sports content flocked to the NFL for something familiar. It was the only league that was able to stick to a somewhat normal schedule despite all of the chaos going on in the world around them. It felt normal during a time when nothing else did.
As the other leagues diligently prepared to return to play safely, the NFL chose to ignore the reality they were facing. It seemed as though the league assumed by the time September came around, the pandemic would be over. At least, that’s the sentiment Executive Vice President Jeff Pash delivered when he spoke to the media at the end of March.
“All of our discussion, all of our focus, has been on a normal traditional season,” Pash said, “starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and full set of playoffs. That’s our focus.”
The plans they did eventually reveal were ambiguous and incomplete. As training camp drew closer, coaches and players began to call out the league publicly for their lack of proper preparation.
“It is a bit mind-numbing,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said back in June. “We’re sitting here talking about handless doors? We’re going to social distance, but we’re playing football? I don’t get it.”
The confused reactions continued after the league announced players would be banned from swapping jerseys after their games in 2020. Considering they would be spending three hours tackling, blocking and covering one another, preventing them from trading jerseys seems nonsensical and fruitless. The NFL will tell you they’re limiting contact when possible, but, like most of the league’s protocols, it comes across as a bit trivial and it’s hard to imagine it will ultimately stop an outbreak. Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman were among the many players to mock the NFL for this decision.
More players followed suit with Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson spearheading a Twitter campaign highlighting the league’s lack of care and planning. Stars across the NFL sent a very clear message to the league: We want to play, but we want to be safe and we don’t feel you’re ensuring that.
As it turns out, the players were right to be concerned. As cases pop up around the league, the question has now become where did the NFL go wrong? But the real question is, did they ever do anything right?
The league’s protocols were half measures at best. Their plan always seemed convoluted. While the NHL and NBA went into bubble environments, football and baseball tried to make do without one. The difference is baseball requires the least amount of player-to-player contact of the four major North American sports. Football has the most. Furthermore, baseball rosters and staffs are less than half the size of those in football. Despite limited contact within games and smaller gatherings, baseball still dealt with massive complications caused by the pandemic. Did the NFL really think it was going to go more smoothly for them?
The Titans are already up to 23 positive tests since September 24th and the Patriots are up to three in the last week. The concern for football fans is that things are only going to get worse, and that fear is more than justified given how poorly the NFL has managed their current predicament to date.
The precautions the league is taking are not enough. What you’re seeing on the field now is something along the lines of “pandemic protocol propaganda”. Let me explain. For the league, their protocols are about appearing a certain way to their audience, not practical measures for player safety. Take Andy Reid for example. NFL coaches are required to wear masks on the sideline. Some have even been fined for violating this policy. This would seem to suggest the NFL takes mask-wearing very seriously, right? Wrong.
“The best benefit [of mask-wearing] is for people who have COVID-19 to protect them from giving COVID-19 to other people,” Infectious Disease Specialist Peter Chin-Hong said back in June in an interview with the University of California San Francisco. However, Andy Reid’s face shield doesn’t meet those standards. Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist Frank Esper spoke to the Cleveland Clinic about face shields in July.
“If you cough, because the face shield is away from your face, those droplets can still get out better than if you have a mask on,” Esper said. Furthermore, the CDC does not recommend face shields for everyday use and advises anyone using one also wear a cloth mask underneath. If Reid is trying to keep his players safe, a face shield alone isn’t going to do it.
The same can be said about neck gaiters. “Other mask options are probably better than a single-layer neck gaiter in many situations,” according to MIT Medical. In a study done to substantiate this claim, Duke University Chemistry Professor Martin Fischer found that N95 masks were the most effective type of face covering, followed by medical masks, then cloth masks with a polypropylene filter, then other options.
The NFL is already in an awkward position with masks. Having team personnel parade around with their faces covered while 48 players on each sideline remain mask-less isn’t exactly ideal, some might even call it pointless, but the league isn’t helping matters by allowing coaches like Mike Vrabel to wear less effective options. If the league really cared about player safety, they would know this and require that everyone wear league-approved cloth masks. Not doing this makes it appear as if their current policy is just for show.
However, the NFL did fine head coaches Kyle Shanahan, Pete Carroll and Vic Fangio $100,000 for not wearing masks on the sideline and the teams of those three coaches were fined an additional $250,000 for the violation. So, why mandate mask-wearing to the extent that you will fine coaches six figures for not wearing them, but not enforce the masks that will provide substantially more safety for everyone involved? It’s pretty simple. It’s all about perception, not reality. As long as it looks like Reid and Vrabel are doing the right thing to the average viewer, it doesn’t matter whether they actually are or not.
The evidence of the NFL’s carelessness doesn’t stop there. According to Dr. Alan Wells of the Pittsburgh Medical Center, a negative test within less than seven days of potential exposure to COVID-19 “is a very, very poor indicator” of whether or not you have the virus in your system. Despite that, the league is operating as if negative tests from Titans and Patriots team members just days after their teammates tested positive means it’s safe for them to play.
In a further attempt to appear concerned, the league even pushed back a few of the games including the upcoming Patriots-Broncos and Titans-Bills games in Week 5. This was after the league pushed back the Week 4 matchup between the Patriots and Chiefs from last Sunday afternoon to Monday evening and postponed the Titans-Steelers game from that same week.
Unfortunately, a day or two isn’t going to do the league any good when it takes over a week to know for sure which members of the team have or have not been infected. Pushing the games back by such a short amount of time offers the league very little in terms of practical benefits for preventing the spread of this virus. However, taking any sort of action whatsoever does afford them the opportunity to claim they did everything they could, even if they really didn’t. It’s like saying you tried to stop a forest fire by spitting on it.
We now have two instances on back-to-back weekends of the NFL knowing a member of a team tested positive within two days of a scheduled game and playing anyway despite the obvious health risks. First, with Tennessee, then with New England. In both cases, more positive tests were reported after the game. Head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the decision to allow Stephon Gilmore to travel and play against the Chiefs despite reportedly being spotted having dinner with Cam Newton on Friday night.
Therein lies the problem. If the league’s protocols aren’t going to restrict the Patriots from bringing Cam Newton’s dinner date to the game after Newton’s positive COVID-19 result, what are they there for?
The Patriots were hoping to do more to keep their players safe. This past Monday, New England requested additional locker room space in Kansas City to help them socially distance after Cam Newton tested positive over the weekend. Arrowhead Stadium is said to have one of the smallest visiting locker rooms in the entire NFL, which presumably wouldn’t be ideal if you’re trying to keep your players six feet apart, a practice that might seem needless considering they’re moments away from congregating on the football field. Nevertheless, the Patriots were just trying to do everything they could, even if it’s something small and trivial. If we‘re to believe the league’s jersey swapping protocol was put in place for the same reason, the NFL should’ve been all for this idea. However, that request was denied.
Players continue to feel abandoned by not only the league, but their own union. Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty did not mince words when speaking about how he feels the NFL is handling this crisis during his Saturday press conference.
“If you’re the people that don’t have to walk in our building, whether it’s the league office, whether it’s the NFLPA, they don’t care.” McCourty said, “For them, it’s not about what’s in our best interest for our health and safety, it’s about what can we make protocol wise that sounds good, looks good, and how can we go out there and play games.”
Put simply, the inside of the Patriots locker room wasn’t going to be televised, it probably wasn’t going to be shared on social media and it wasn’t going to be showcased to a national audience. That’s all the NFL cares about. Being image conscious while doing something as reckless as bringing numerous groups of over 100 people together every Sunday to play football during a pandemic is tough to balance. The league wants to avoid the outrage from the general public and they want people to believe what they’re doing is safe. The problem is what they’re doing isn’t safe, so they have to do their best to fake it.
However, there is at least one proven way to play professional sports while limiting health risks during this pandemic. The NBA is about to wrap up a three month long stay in their Orlando bubble without a single positive test since the games began. They held players accountable, forcing Lou Williams and Richaun Holmes to quarantine after breaking protocol and sending Danuel House home after he reportedly had a female COVID-19 testing official come to his room for an “unauthorized visit”. The NBA’s vigilance kept all of their players and staff on site COVID-free since mid-July.
The NFL, meanwhile, has thus far been more concerned with keeping their image healthy. At least, as healthy as it can be while multiple players across the league are getting sick. It wouldn’t be the first time the NFL made a morally questionable decision. Ray Rice, Colin Kaepernick, Greg Hardy, concussions, the list goes on and on. The NFL is used to doing the wrong thing. This year is no different.
To add insult to injury, they’re also the only North American sports league to allow fans into games since mid-March, further proving the league is most concerned with getting every dollar they can. The Browns, Cowboys, Colts, Jaguars, Chiefs and Dolphins have all opened their stadiums to a limited number of fans already this season with more teams expected to follow suit. Most teams only allowed 10-25% capacity in their stadiums, with the Dallas Cowboys allowing by far the most fans with a whopping 25,201 in attendance for their most recent game against the Cleveland Browns. Florida based teams will have the opportunity to surpass that number after the governor announced they were permitted to open their stadiums to full capacity.
At best, what the NFL is doing is ignorant. At worst, it’s deceitful. Is the league willfully putting the health of everyone across the league at risk or are they just that stupid? From what we know about the NFL, both are equally possible. Pleading ignorance is a strategy that has worked for Roger Goodell in the past after mishandling disputes relating to domestic violence and racial injustice. The NFL is great at using their own stupidity as a crutch.
However, claiming not to know any better isn’t good enough anymore and the league has exhausted that excuse for the last time. This information is all readily available. Being uninformed is a choice. When your policies are responsible for maintaining the health of thousands of employees, knowing this information should be considered the bare minimum. It’s clear for Roger Goodell and owners across the league, money comes first, perception comes second and health comes third (if that).
J.C. Tretter, an offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns and the president of the NFLPA, wrote the following in his open letter to the NFL, Prioritizing Player Safety In A Pandemic: “Like many other industries, football’s resistance to change is based on the belief that the best way to run things is the way we’ve always run things. That pervasive thought process will stop this season in its tracks.”
The league’s philosophy seems to align almost perfectly with what Vanessa Hudgens said about the pandemic in her infamous Instagram Live from this past March. Just imagine for me, if you will, a giant NFL logo covering Hudgens’ face in this video:
Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this right now, NFL. If you can’t play in a bubble, then maybe football is the one sport that can’t be played during a pandemic.
Photo: (Shawn Palmer – Guy Boston Sports Illustrations x SP Designs)