The North American sports league with the most time to figure out its Covid-19 strategy was the National Football League. The NFL’s season was just wrapping up with the Super Bowl as the virus started to reach the United States — epidemiologists have argued that the 49ers’ loss may have saved the city of San Francisco thousands of lives by avoiding a championship parade. It then had months to prepare before play resumed in September. This allowed officials to watch all the other leagues fail (and succeed), ideally taking notes as what worked and what didn’t became clear.
This allowed officials to watch all the other leagues fail (and succeed), ideally taking notes as what worked and what didn’t became clear.
By the time the NFL season began last month, the league had received plaudits for its expansive testing regimen and surprisingly low number of positive tests in training camp. The first two weeks of the season featured no outbreaks and no canceled games. It looked like the NFL, a league proud of its ability to power its way through any trouble, was on top of this in a way other leagues had not been.
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It no longer looks that way. The NFL is now facing its stiffest test yet, with a positive test for New England quarterback Cam Newton forcing the marquee Patriots-Chiefs game to be pushed from last week to Monday. There was also a clear outbreak involving the Tennessee Titans, in which nearly 20 players and staff tested positive. These outbreaks and postponements bring into considerable question whether the league is going to be able to pull this season off as smoothly as it had insisted it would.
If the season does gets derailed to a point where it feels unrecognizable, it might not necessarily be anything the NFL did wrong. It might just be that, as it turns out, playing a professional sport in which people tackle and breathe heavily into one another’s faces during a pandemic is too hard to pull off.
The NFL must first solve two big problems. The first is that the NFL, unlike the NBA, NHL and WNBA, does not have a bubble. The NFL followed Major League Baseball’s model, going ahead and traveling around the country for games rather than playing them in one isolated location. In baseball you may remember, this led to two major outbreaks, one with the Miami Marlins and then a more extended one with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals outbreak looked incredibly similar to what the Tennessee Titans are going through right now; the Titans, like the Cardinals, reacted to initial positive tests by shutting down facilities and isolating. But the new positive tests continued. The long incubation period of the virus has forced the Titans to postpone one game, and if the team follows CDC recommendations, it may push back another.
The NBA, NHL and WNBA, famously, didn’t have a single positive case in their bubbles and, thus, had no outbreaks. A bubble was surely never feasible for the NFL — the season lasts four and a half months, and finding a place where 100 staffers and their families on 32 teams could live for that long would be as difficult as finding a place with the required number of football stadiums. The league essentially had no choice but to play their games out in the world. And it turns out there’s a lot of Covid-19 in the world.
The other problem is a curious one: The league has to treat its players better than college football does. College football is having occasional cancellations of games, but only after major outbreaks, and not because anyone is particularly worried about superspreading events. Most games get canceled because teams literally don’t have enough non-Covid-positive players to field a team. (Read this piece from Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger to give you an idea how skewed the mindset on this is.) If seven players on a college football team suddenly test positive, or have been in close contact with someone who has, as long as there’s still enough players on the roster, they’ll still play. (Witness this absurd Georgia Southern roster update minutes before its game started; Georgia Southern still won.)
College football can do that, because college football players are unpaid labor with no union; unless they simply refuse to play, they have no real recourse. But NFL players have a union, and a labor agreement that is collectively bargained. If an NFL team has that many positives, the NFL can’t play. Owners cannot just (immorally) power through like universities can. That’s better for the world and better for the health of their players, but means finishing a full schedule will be harder. The NFL simply has a lower threshold for cancellation or postponement than college football does.
These are difficulties for the NFL, sure, but not necessarily fatal ones. The league can frantically reschedule games, and isolate players, and cobble together a season, not dissimilar to the way MLB did. (MLB’s goal was just to make it to the postseason, and as jerry-rigged as its dog’s breakfast of a season turned out to be, the postseason has indeed arrived.)
The nightmare scenario, and probably the only thing that would stop the NFL’s season entirely (other than a player death), involves inter-team transmission.
The nightmare scenario, and probably the only thing that would stop the NFL’s season entirely (other than a player death), involves inter-team transmission. The biggest worry for baseball when the Marlins had their outbreak was that players had transferred the virus to the Phillies, the team they were playing when positive tests showed up. It turns out this didn’t happen, so the season continued.
Will the NFL have the same good fortune? There’s reason to be concerned. Baseball, in the wake of the Marlins and Cardinals incidents, tightened up its protocols, particularly when it came to contact among players on opposite teams. The idea is that if you could keep potential cases contained within one team, you could keep it contained in general. That is easier in baseball, a sport where opposing players generally stand somewhere 60 to 90 feet from one another. Football is, of course, not like this at all: Football players are closer together, frankly, than some marriages. An outbreak within one team can be handled. One that’s being passed from one team to another is how a league loses control … and potentially cancels a season, which would in turn have overwhelming financial and cultural ramifications. So far, there has been no team-to-team transfer. But that’s the hard part. That’s what to watch out for.
The NFL tried to dance between the Covid-19 raindrops. For two weeks, it worked. But as the White House can now tell you: You can’t hide from this virus forever. It eventually finds you, especially if you are reckless. It’s how you handle what happens next that matters. The NFL has a tougher challenge than many realize. And the stakes are higher than ever.