Before we get too far into this, let’s answer your first question: No, this is not Big Media hand-wringing. This is not the practical among us spiking the (figurative) football and saying we told you so. This is not some pearl-clutching monologue, the likes of which you have heard a million times already.
This is a recognition that, as much as we wanted football to cement itself as an escape from the coronavirus after successful bubble runs in the NBA and NHL, the fact of the matter is that this disease is not going away—not even with the NFL’s unparalleled access to rapid testing, the likes of which the general public could only dream. The Titans’ outbreak, which the league announced on Tuesday, includes three players and five personnel, and will effectively shut down the operations of both the Titans and their Week 3 opponent, the Vikings. According to colleague Albert Breer, Tennessee’s de facto defensive coordinator, Shane Bowen, tested positive for COVID-19 last week but was not among the eight members of the Titans announced Tuesday.
In a joint statement with the NFLPA, the league said that both clubs were working to trace those in close contact and coordinate with the NFL’s infectious disease experts. The Vikings, in a separate statement, said they had yet to receive any positive results from Sunday’s round of postgame testing.
It’s a minor miracle that the NFL made it this far into the season without a major interruption, particularly given the scattershot nature of Major League Baseball’s season and the seemingly daily cancellation of college football games. We’ve seen the league dole out gutting fines to head coaches who don’t wear masks, and we’ve seen head coaches continue to remove them so they can get within a quarter inch of an official to holler at them for some perceived injustice. We’ve seen the shots of sidelines, with players hugging, fist bumping and celebrating as usual. We’ve seen offensive linemen piled on top of one another, breathing in the same air in closed quarters.
It’s hard not to imagine all of that creeps into the subconscious of those of us watching. We tell ourselves that if THOSE guys are fine, why on earth am I so worried about going to the bar? We see vitality amid the pandemic, and it triggers a sense that our country has gotten through the worst of it, even as the number of cases in the United States rises again. As most of the Midwest simmers as a continued hotspot. As colleges and universities bring students back, only to shut the campuses back down again.
It’s a reminder for all of us to remain vigilant, even when we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking it might not be as important as it used to be.
And it’s a reminder for the NFL that the league will not be able to coast through this unprecedented season. Its handling of the Titans outbreak will be significant moving forward, not only for the individual health of the eight employees but for the rest of the league looking on. Take it seriously and the rest of the league will take it seriously, too. Nervously shuffle everything under the desk and plow ahead despite the obvious safety concerns, and the rest of the league will plow ahead despite the obvious safety concerns, too.
It’s not unfair to say that, with all of the resources at its disposal, the league has been wonderfully fortunate to this point. It had the longest runway of any professional sports league and made no serious alterations to its schedule. It had the biggest war chest and, had the league needed it, the weight of overwhelming public opinion on its side to machete through any red tape. Given the NFL’s plum position in society, could it have done more to set an example for the rest of the country? Absolutely.
Does it have a chance to redeem itself now? Absolutely.