If one word could be used to describe the National Football League’s (NFL) handling of its season in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’d be farcical. A mess, characterized by mistake after mistake with no redeemable aspects or moments through Week 12 of the season.
The past couple of weeks have been a logistical nightmare, with the matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers currently existing in a state of purgatory and the Denver Broncos being forced to play without a quarterback, bringing up a wide receiver from the practice squad to be the signal-caller against the New Orleans Saints.
These examples are just the latest of the NFL attempts to push this season along with a cattle prod. Now, the reason that we are at this point is a mix of hubris, greed and negligence at the hands of the League.
The NFL watched as professional sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and the National Women’s Soccer League perfectly executed bubble seasons over the summer. These other governing bodies instituted airtight policies based solely on the concern of protecting players and personnel, trying to complete the impossible task of pulling off a season.
On the other hand, the NFL showed up to its season with a makeshift plan constituting of reactive policies. The League decided to not use the bubble format, which greatly increased the chance for exposure due to travel and outside interactions. This decision was partly based on the players not wanting to do a bubble and the NFL wanting to capitalize on the revenue from having fans at the games.
So instead of creating a closed quarantine environment for the players, they implemented a bunch of health and safety protocols focusing on mitigating the impact of the virus rather than preventing it.
The NFL started daily COVID-19 testing at the start of training camp and has continued every day except on game days. Each team’s facilities require players and personnel to also report to symptom screenings and temperature checks every day.
If a player tests positive and is asymptomatic, to leave isolation, he must wait until 10 days have passed since the initial positive test or five days with two negative PCR virus test results at least 24 hours apart. If a player tests positive and shows symptoms, he can return after 10 days since symptoms first appeared if at least 72 hours have passed since he last showed symptoms.
In addition to these protocols, the League put contact tracing in place with a third-party tracking device that identifies in-game close contacts. There are also fines in place for engaging in reckless behavior away from the facility, like attending high-risk activities like indoor gatherings.
In-game, coaches and staff members in the bench area are required to wear masks, while players aren’t necessarily forced to.
There are also natural lapses in the testing system. Often inconclusive tests or players waiting on results are able to play in games on Sundays. Then they find out that they’ve tested positive and exposed their teammates and team personnel to the virus. The team and the NFL then must react and attempt to isolate any player that has been exposed.
Now, because of the structure of the NFL season and the manner in which the protocols were placed, the onus of safety falls to the accountability of each person in an organization. This is obviously a flawed system and is analogous to the situation that the U.S. is in right now.
Multiple teams have seen how impossible it is to depend on every single person to follow the rules. The Ravens had to put 18 players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list in the past couple of weeks because the strength and conditioning coach did not wear a mask, report his symptoms and wear his contact tracing device. He put a number of players in danger, including the reigning league Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson, who tested positive for the virus.
Due to the rash of positive tests stemming from the selfishness of the coach, their Thanksgiving matchup with the Steelers has been delayed two times now. They now might have to play against Pittsburgh without two dozen players.
The Broncos experienced a similar situation. The entire quarterback group did not wear masks during meetings and subsequently was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. They then had to start wide receiver Kendall Hinton at quarterback, whose last appearance at the position was in college at Wake Forest. Consequently, they got thrashed by the Saints by a score of 31-3.
Earlier in the season, the Tennessee Titans experienced a serious lapse in judgment that caused their game with the Steelers to be delayed as well. They failed to wear masks, causing an outbreak at the facility. Then they still held workouts even after the team facilities were closed for isolation.
Now, the lack of a secure environment that depends on the responsibility of each and every member of the community is bound to fail. What we’ve seen in the past year is that the American population is imperfect. Even with clear guidelines and empirical support for the effectiveness of masks and social distancing, we see that our cases are rising each day.
The NFL community is no different. There are going to be members of teams that act selfishly and endanger the lives of others in the name of personal choice and comfort. Why? Because they have the opportunity to. There has been ample evidence not to trust the American people with their choices during the pandemic, but individual choice and freedom to act is still the final line of defense against the virus.
Even in the face of lives being endangered and careers in jeopardy, members still are unable to follow the simple guidelines put in place. Time and time again, the selfish decisions of the few will impact the livelihood of the many.
As long as the NFL hinges on the personal decision making of each player and staff member, they will see cases rise. And I’m not sure they’re equipped to deal with the consequences of that.