In the middle of a global pandemic, the NFL is going forward with free agency.
On Sunday evening, clubs were sent a memo informing them that it’s business as usual this week: The franchise tag deadline is Monday at 11:59 a.m., followed by the legal tampering window opening at noon, and the league year opening Wednesday at 4 p.m. All as scheduled.
Except that nothing else is going as scheduled right now in the United States, nor should it be. Schools are being closed across the nation. In some cities, bars and restaurants are shutting down; curfews are being imposed. Families are having to make difficult decisions about whether to pull elderly relatives out of nursing homes and switch them to home isolation, because of the acute coronavirus risk.
The optics of dissecting million-dollar contracts as the nation grapples with a national emergency are bad, but this is about more than optics. Normally, sports can be a welcome distraction from the weight of the world, but this is different. This is a health crisis that requires the engagement and responsible behavior of every American.
Several high-ranking team officials thought late last week that the league year would indeed be pushed back, noting that those conversations were ongoing. Saints head coach Sean Payton said the same on Saturday evening, in an interview with the TVG network. On Sunday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the NFL Players Association “would not provide consent” to move back the league year, wanting to get the business of free agency done before the spread of the disease worsens. It’s hard to imagine that another factor was not the potential ratings win for wall-to-wall free agency coverage while millions of Americans work from home.
While the NFL may be able to conduct free-agency business without travel or with many employees working from home, this still creates a reason for key team personnel to congregate, if they choose to do so. And that’s far from the only concern. Forging ahead with free agency now will take team employees, players and agents away from their families and communities at a time when support at home and elsewhere is essential. Parents may not have any childcare support and may be tasked with keeping school-age kids both occupied and on-track with any schoolwork sent home during school closures. Families with elderly or immunocompromised relatives may take on additional responsibilities or face important decisions to protect those most at risk for COVID-19. Players will be asked to make life-changing job-related decisions during a period when many will be managing other stressors.
More broadly, it’s dangerous for a sports league to set a business-as-usual precedent regarding something (free agency) that is neither urgent nor essential, when doctors and officials are urging Americans not to proceed with business as usual. A pandemic has the potential to affect everyone—regardless of status or income level. In case you needed a reminder, the diagnoses of three NBA players and actor Tom Hanks should have served as one. By the NFL brazenly moving forward, it reinforces a dangerous notion that some entities are above the pandemic, not affected by it, that this is an “other people” issue.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has affirmed that the worst is yet to come—but he’s also made clear that how we respond has an impact on what that endpoint will be. Recommendations from health professionals about how best to do that are changing by the day, and even the hour. Why try to jam in the busiest part of the NFL calendar before things get “really bad,” when we can’t even be certain what we’ll be facing in the next few days, or how many of us will be directly affected? This is not to say that no one should work right now—most of us are, and many do not have a choice. But the most popular and powerful entertainment institution in America had a choice to hit pause; to choose not to proceed with an event that requires around-the-clock, all-consuming work when many involved may have pressing priorities at home or elsewhere.
Plus, this is an arbitrarily scheduled part of the league year. Just a few weeks ago, during the NFL combine, there was some discussion—though it did not manifest—of possibly pushing back the start of the league year to reach a resolution on the new CBA. After the lockout, the 2011 league year opened in late July. But during a national emergency, the date is immovable?
Also on Sunday night, the CDC called for the cancellation of in-person gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC clarified that does not apply to the day-to-day operation of schools and businesses, but rather is aimed to reduce the introduction of the virus into new communities and limit its spread in communities already affected. Since players congregate from all over the country for the start of offseason workouts, scheduled for next month, would that qualify under these guidelines? Or, perhaps more aptly, shouldn’t it? Acting in “an abundance of caution,” as we have all been encouraged to do, means being willing to accept disruptions or changes to our routines—it means being willing to later look like we overreacted.
In making these decisions, the NFL had a benefit that the NBA, NHL, MLB, women’s and men’s NCAA basketball, etc., did not: Its season is not underway or imminent. Any adjustments to its calendar would not come at the same cost. Despite that, the NFL is the only major sports league in America to move forward with what looks a lot more like defiance than prudence.
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