An NFL COVID-19 Outbreak Was Inevitable Because Nobody Controls the Virus

We've known all along an outbreak like the Titans are seeing this week was likely to hit an NFL facility.
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The first reaction is, or should be, to hope everybody is healthy. Nine people in the Titans organization have tested positive for COVID-19, a virus that has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States alone in less than a year, and so reasonable people—and even unreasonable people—should agree: Let’s hope everybody is healthy.

Think of it this way: The five-year survival rate for melanoma skin cancer is 99%. If a friend said, “I have skin cancer,” you would presumably worry and hope they are healthy. The chances of anybody in the Titans’ organization dying are impossible to know—we don’t know whether there will be more cases, or the age and health of those who tested positive—but it’s possible and scary. So let’s say that first.

And then let’s acknowledge something else: This was inevitable.

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An outbreak at an NFL facility was inevitable. Postponing games was inevitable. As of this writing, the Titans are not allowed to return to their facility until Saturday, and it is hard to imagine they will play Pittsburgh on Sunday, as planned. The Vikings, who played Tennessee on Sunday, are also locked out of their facility at the moment.

This was the game the NFL chose to play when it opted to stage a season with no bubble. There would be positive tests, which puts people at risk of dying and of having debilitating illnesses down the road. In August, Sports Illustrated polled almost 150 doctors and asked: If your full income came from playing in one of the four major U.S. men’s professional sports leagues, how likely would you be to play?

More than 60% said they would not play pro football, for two reasons: They thought an outbreak was inevitable, and they don’t want any risk of getting COVID-19. They were not “rooting for the virus,” and they don’t hate sports. They just decided the risk was both significant and not worth it.

Well, football is built on two principles: pain tolerance and control. NFL players get hurt all the time; they are accustomed to blocking out the risk to their health. And the sport is all about control. Imagine an NFL team running a free-flowing offense, like basketball teams often do. Coaches control plays. Franchises control players. But nobody controls the coronavirus.

An outbreak was inevitable, just as outbreaks in Major League Baseball were inevitable and outbreaks in college football were inevitable.

The COVID-19 conversation is filled with uncertainty, even if we discuss it honestly and sincerely. It is usually not discussed honestly and sincerely. Instead it becomes the worst combination of political argument and sports trash talk, filled with accusations about motives (“You just hate football, President Trump, apple pie and all the constitutional amendments I have never read!”) and people acting like they know more than they do. We’re all learning, and the situation is evolving. Improvements in testing can make a huge difference.

All people can do is make the best decision they can based on what they know. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, a smart and decent man, got crushed for canceling his league’s games last month. The league has since reversed course. But all Warren and Big Ten presidents could do was make the best decisions they could, based on the information they had available to them at that time, and hope they were right.

The applause for the NFL after two weeks of games was laughably premature. Caution is born of science, and deriding the cautious was silly. These are calculations—gambles, essentially, with people’s livelihoods.

I am writing this from inside the NBA bubble, which—unlike what the NFL has constructed or MLB will construct for the final three rounds of its postseason—is an actual bubble. It has worked wonderfully so far. We are all tested daily. It’s been a virus-free environment. It feels safe … and yet, until somebody wins the Larry O’Brien trophy, there is still a chance it’ll fall apart.

Nobody controls the virus. The NFL has acted extremely confident about its protocols, because it’s the NFL and the league always thinks it has a better way. Well, here we are. It’s still September. This outbreak was inevitable. I think there will be more, but I really hope I’m wrong. I hope nobody gets seriously ill. And I hope we can all agree on that.