Cam Newton’s positive COVID-19 test, which has already postponed Sunday’s game against the Chiefs, will ultimately result in some mind-boggling three-dimensional chess from the NFL and its stable of enablers to justify the 2020 season’s continued existence this weekend and in the immediate future.
The league that has had the longest runway to figure out a feasible solution and backup plan as this pandemic has torn apart the sports calendar has acted like every other major sports entity, waffling and ultimately buckling to the weight of a vocal minority and the prospect of an almighty dollar. So, forgive us if we aren’t optimistic about what’s to come over the next few days and weeks. One question worth asking if you’re an NFL player right now: If the starting quarterback in New England has tested positive and spent the entire week barking plays at and throwing sweaty footballs to his teammates in close proximity, and the practice squad quarterback in Kansas City with similar responsibilities has also tested positive, how are we certain that, given the wide variance in virus incubation windows, all of Saturday morning’s alleged negative tests recorded by their teammates will be valid 24 hours from now? Who can say that, in a few hours, a Tuesday night game between the Patriots and Chiefs won’t also be deemed completely unplayable?
Clubs are already being unfairly punished—see: a Steelers team that had its schedule rerouted despite the fact that every player followed protocol and tested negative, but could not compete against a Titans team with nearly a dozen positive tests between players and staffers—and before long the schedule is going to warp like a wet gymnasium floorboard. Like the NFL’s counterparts over in Major League Baseball, the resulting season will be something so strange and asterisk-laden we’ll wonder why we pushed for it at all.
The logical thing to do right now would be to pause the NFL season for a full incubation period, starting immediately. As cases continue to rise in various hotspots throughout the country, as the nation deals with the trickledown effect of having its own president quarantined with a positive test, as the Titans recover from their outbreak and the scattered effects of roughly a dozen positive tests, as the Raiders breathe a deep sigh of relief from their own stable of critical players avoiding positive tests from a mask-less gathering, the league should take the prudent step of halting operations and waiting out what seems like another wave of the virus working its way through the country. Allow all players a respite to get healthy and isolate. Introduce some actual consequences so we stop seeing the ridiculous flaunting of different mask and social distancing measures on the sidelines every Sunday.
On Saturday, many pointed out that teams have gotten by with one or two positive tests, so the Patriots would be fine. The Falcons got by without a cornerback (kind of!). The Titans were ready to barrel ahead with three quarters of their roster and no practice. But the question is: Why? Why is the league content with the continued dilution of the product for the sake of throwing results on the board? How will they calibrate and explain a season where teams could spend various amounts of time operating without critical players and staff (and please, my goodness, don’t be oafish enough to compare this to a typical football injury)? As a fan, does the familiar whiff of regular football really provide enough of a distraction when the core of the product can become so hollow?
Taking a break before this surge winds its way through the rest of the NFL is sensible and still awards the NFL credit for jumping on a simmering issue before it becomes a full-blown disaster. Of course, like the rest of the leagues the NFL had the fortune of waiting out, no one else decided to choose sensibility and pragmatism, so why should they?