Before getting to the usual column, a word about today's breaking news of positive COVID-19 tests shutting down team activities in the NFL:
Despite all the vigilance that the NFL and its players have shown, it was inevitable that COVID-19 would rear its head with a group of players and/or team personnel. That has now happened with the Titans and, by extension, their opponent on Sunday, the Vikings. It is way too early for alarm, as this "abundance of caution" (keeping teams out of their facilities) is what we have all prepared for. But as I said throughout the offseason, playing through the pandemic is no sure thing. The NFL has powered through with confidence since March: Free agency, the draft and training camp all went full speed ahead with necessary testing and precautions. And the first month of the season seemed surprisingly normal, with the biggest COVID-19 story line being whether coaches should be fined for not wearing masks properly. Yet here we are, and it is naive to think we won't be here again. As the theme of this and so many of my other columns says, the business of sports usually wins, and it has won with the NFL ... so far. Time will tell going forward.
Now where were we?
News moves fast in the business of football, as developments in this unprecedented and unique season amid COVID-19 continue. We begin with a stunning—although not surprising—reversal in college football.
Big Ten business over all
In August, the Big Ten surprisingly (to me) prioritized the health and safety of its players and staff over economics by opting not to play in 2020. The decision resonated as 1) other Power 5 conferences (the SEC, Big 12 and ACC) reached the opposite decision; and 2) the economic impact wreaked on these schools and surrounding regions is massive even without fans, as I detailed here at the time. It seemed that my adage “The business of football always wins” was proved wrong … until it was proved right again last week. The Big Ten reversed course; it will now play.
With the Big Ten domino falling, others have followed in lockstep. The Pac 12, after shutting down football hours after the Big Ten did in August, brought back football soon after the Big Ten did in September. And the Mountain West and Mid-American conferences have done the same, citing better testing, protocols, etc.
Why the change? Evidently, the same medical experts upon whom the Big Ten relied when deciding not to play have assured them that testing and protocols are now in place to play. Is that the real reason? Besides the pressure applied from coaches, players, player families and, of course, lawyers, these schools obviously faced the harsh economic realities of not playing in an already dire economic year due to the pandemic’s effects on higher education. A couple of university presidents and athletic directors even said that the reversal was not about the money which, of course, meant it was all about the money.
The lingering question for the Big Ten and college football, more so than for pro sports, is no longer whether they will start but rather whether they will finish. In pro sports, both bubbled and non-bubbled, we have seen extraordinary vigilance in keeping the virus at bay. That has already proved much more challenging with younger athletes. It is said that our most irresponsible years are between ages 18 and 22; that does not bode well for college sports amid COVID-19. We have already seen multiple college football games postponed, even featuring powerful teams like Notre Dame, and there will inevitably be more. College football has been and will continue to be a patchwork in this unique 2020 season, with some stopping and starting, some not starting and some not finishing.
Unprecedented player absences
Another way in which this college football season will be like no other is the absence of several elite players who have opted out. A couple of those from the Big Ten now want to return, putting them in the tricky situation of trying to play after having committed to an agent, something that in a “normal” year would make them ineligible. Still unanswered as of this writing: Will the NCAA relax that rule as a one-off in this unique year?
Even if those Big Ten players return, there are several top draft prospects who have chosen NFL prep over college football. We have never even seen one top NFL prospect sit out an entire college football season (Nick Bosa played three games for Ohio State in 2018 before sitting out after an injury). The 2021 NFL draft may have 8 to 12 first-round picks who sat out in 2020. Surefire first-round picks Penei Sewell (Oregon), Greg Rousseau (Miami), Ja’Marr Chase (LSU), Micah Parsons (Penn State) and Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) are among the top players in college football who will spend their seasons at a training facility preparing for the draft (at the expense of their agents) instead of playing for their schools. Will it affect the popularity of the game? Judging by the overwhelmingly popular reaction to the return of the Big Ten, probably not.
My adage is back and better than ever: The business of (college) football always wins.
Ratings: Good, bad, meaningless
Reacting to NFL ratings seems to be a weekly ritual, fueled by media covering media, in assessing the health and preeminence of the NFL—even though a “bad” NFL rating equates to a raging success for any other type of sports and entertainment programming. But my question is: Absent a dramatic drop, does it matter? Will CBS, NBC, ABC, ESPN and Fox ever attempt to lower their NFL commitment? Of course not.
Bloomberg reported that Fox Sports was willing to commit $2 billion into its next deal, twice its current rate (probably drawing the ire of their brethren at Fox News). And I don’t think Fox cares whether it has a ratings dip in this year of a presidential election. And of course the NFL will have not only the traditional broadcast networks interested in their product in upcoming negotiations, but also digital media giants Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook, etc.
The NFL appears to be the only “must-have” programming left in this age of proliferation of content options for viewers. The league even appeared to troll us all last week; programming one of its least attractive games possible—the Jaguars and Dolphins—against the NBA’s Western Conference finals. (In reality, the NFL schedule came out before the NBA officially announced its bubble plan.) And then the hapless NFL teams outdrew LeBron James and the Lakers.
More injuries or more famous injured?
A big story of the early season is the rash of major injuries to stars such as Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, Tarik Cohen, Drew Lock and others. A narrative has developed that these injuries stem from the shortened offseason and the lack of preseason games. I wondered whether that was true and whether we are seeing more serious injuries or simply seeing more serious injuries to high-profile players. The answer lies somewhere in between.
As to the lack of an offseason, that is nothing new to NFL players and teams; it has been in place due to the CBA—much to the chagrin of coaches—for a decade. As to the lack of preseason games? Please. The star players now injured would not have been playing much, if at all, in those games, anyway.
One concern seems to be an increase in ACL injuries. From talking to a couple of team doctors, it seems that in a “normal” year we would be seeing those ACL injuries in the preseason and training camp; now we are seeing them early in the regular season. In Week 1 there was one ACL injury; in Week 2 there were seven. Perhaps what we are seeing is the shifting of the ACL injuries from the preseason—suffered by players most of us have never heard of—to the season with names that we all have heard of (and some we haven't as well).
As for one unusual injury …
Doctors, but not lawyers
Reports surfaced last week that the Chargers’ team doctor, while administering a painkilling injection, “punctured the lung” of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Fans and media (myself included) gasped, and my social media channels were buzzing with my familiar refrain: “There will be lawyers.” Will there be lawyers? My response is: Are there damages?
Taylor has a guaranteed contract this year, without incentives, so that is not at risk. He has a $5 million nonguaranteed salary next year; the Chargers hold the decision there. In the event Taylor is 1) released by the Chargers before next season; 2) doesn’t sign somewhere else; or 3) does sign somewhere else, he would have to make an argument for damages. An argument could be made that but for doctor’s mistake, Taylor would have continued to start for the Chargers, holding off rookie Justin Herbert longer, and/or would have proved himself worthy of continuing the contract he has with the Chargers or earning a similar or better contract with someone else next year.
Of course these arguments are speculative. And the Chargers’ GM and potentially other NFL GMs would have to testify that but for the lung complication, Taylor would be playing for the Chargers or have received a similar or better contract with another team. Damages seem difficult despite the sensational nature of what happened.
Further, team doctors are not team employees for two reasons: 1) They have their own full-time practices, buoyed by their affiliation with NFL teams; and 2) teams cannot be liable for malpractice since they are not employed by them. The Chargers have supported their doctor in public statements, and, contrary to the breathless nature of the report, Taylor appears to have no long-term complications.
There were doctors, but there probably won’t be lawyers.