The NFL season is in danger? I thought everything had been going well?
Well, they had been. Until Tuesday, only 36 people in the NFL – seven players and 29 staff – had tested positive for Covid-19. When you consider the thousands of people involved in the league, from coaches to players to support staff, that’s not bad. That means that, unlike Major League Baseball, all of this season’s games have gone ahead as scheduled. Good news if you support the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, not so great if you’re a fan of the New York Jets.
Until Tuesday, you say?
That’s when news emerged that three players and five other team personnel from the Tennessee Titans had tested positive for Covid-19. The Titans subsequently closed team facilities until Saturday. That means their preparation for their scheduled game on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers may well be done over Zoom with players practicing on their own. The Minnesota Vikings, who played the Titans on Sunday, have also closed their team facilities, while the officiating crew from that game are also being monitored. Despite the fact that the Titans players had sweated and breathed over each other for a good portion of Sunday, ESPN reported that the NFL is still keen for the Titans-Steelers game to go ahead, possibly on Monday.
Were the NFL prepared for this?
“This is not unexpected,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a Tuesday memo to the NFL’s teams obtained by ESPN. “There will be players and staff who will test positive during the season.” The NFL’s Covid-19 policy means players and staff are tested every day except gameday. Tests are missed on gamedays because the league favours nasal swab tests, the results of which can take a while to come back. That means tests taken before a game may not be returned until after the contest has been played.
Why not play in a bubble like the NBA?
The NBA has nearly finished its season, and the only disruptions were due to calls for social justice rather than Covid-19. But the NBA’s situation was very different. For a start, NBA teams only have 15 players on their rosters while NFL teams have up to 55 – and that’s before you include coaches, medical staff and the dozens of others who help run a franchise. Added to that, only 22 NBA teams took part when the season resumed in an isolated bubble at Walt Disney World in July – whereas all 32 NFL teams would participate if the league took place in a bubble. That means a venue large enough to host thousands of people would need to be found at very short notice – and the NBA is already occupying one of those. Meanwhile, some teams have started to let fans back into stadiums, albeit it in small numbers.
Why is the NFL so keen to press ahead if a deadly virus has taken hold of one of its teams?
The league has plenty of reasons to be cautious. Some players are asthmatic (although the overweight are more likely to die from Covid-19, obese NFL players are not thought to be at added risk), while many coaches and officials are in their 60s and 70s. There was talk of postponing Sunday’s game and playing it during either the Steelers’ or Titans’ bye week. But the NFL, for all its recent nods to social justice, is proud of its status as a moneymaking behemoth. Unlike baseball, the league doesn’t have the option of postponing games and making them up with doubleheaders or having teams play a few days in a row – professional football is just too hard on the body to schedule any more than one match-up a week for teams. Besides that, it’s not like the league or its owners have displayed too much concern for the health and welfare of their players in the past, as long as the cash keeps rolling in.
Then there’s the current political climate in America. TV ratings this season – more important than ever now that fans are largely absent from the stands – have been mixed at best, with those on the left blaming the league for not doing enough to promote social justice and those on the right deriding it for bringing too much politics into the game. The NFL will want to show its fans, detractors and, most importantly, its sponsors and broadcast partners that it still has things under control.
So the season isn’t under threat then?
Despite the fact that this is a league that took four years to decide whether it supported its players’ right to protest against racism, the NFL magically becomes ruthlessly efficient when money is at issue. With around $16bn at stake, the NFL will do everything in its power to make sure Super Bowl LV goes ahead in Tampa on 7 February.