“Man, this is great.”
That’s how color analyst Mark Schlereth started us off on Sunday over an image of emergency quarterback (and former practice squad wide receiver) Kendall Hinton before kickoff of a Saints-Broncos game. It was an afternoon that would not feature a single quarterback for Denver because every single one of them had set off red flags due to their close, maskless proximity to Jeff Driskel, who tested positive during the week.
Sure, on one hand it’s kind of a perverse curiosity. A team has to essentially revert to running the Wing-T amid this unprecedented season as the virus rips its way through their locker room and several other locker rooms (and the country, as we’re fast approaching a horrifying daily death record set back in April at a time when we surely thought all of this would be under control by now). It’s not difficult to understand how a matchup like this would accentuate offensive line play, which is Schlereth’s specialty, thus leading to a more informative broadcast for the viewer (and, theoretically, a more interesting game for Schlereth to call). But are we sure “great” is the right way to go with it?
This is not a column complaining about a slightly cringe-worthy word choice from one announcer, we promise. I’m not sure what many people would have done in his shoes. It was a perfectly O.K. broadcast otherwise. But it is an avenue into wondering whether we’ve blurred the line from acceptable entertainment during a pandemic to something more grotesque—and, as a football community, if we have the ability to even discuss something like this seriously at all. As teams around the league continue to approach COVID-19 protocols with the casualness of a Tinder swipe, we’ve now fully embraced the consequences of their actions as a normal part of the tradecraft. How will team X overcome the loss of a player on Sunday who is sick with an illness that has claimed millions of lives?
The NFL had a unique mantle by which to set an example for the country. And God bless the league as it continues to try and rattle people’s cages with six-figure fines to underline the seriousness of the matter. It is trying. It made the Broncos play without a quarterback on Sunday, for starters. But the way we all looked at Broncos-Saints simply echoed the fact that some of us are continuing to see COVID as a nuisance at worst and, at best, some kind of alternate sports universe from which to derive unique and interesting experiences. Coaches continue to remove masks. Players continue to gather without them.
Maybe watching Hinton scramble aimlessly through the backfield was entertaining for you and, devoid of its proper context, it’s hard to disagree. Had each of the Broncos quarterbacks missed the game through some routine, line-of-duty issue, this would have felt more like something to gawk at. But shouldn’t it feel different given the circumstances? And if it doesn’t, why not?
What would the impact be of a coach stepping to the virtual lectern and saying that he was disappointed in himself for not setting a good enough example for his players? What would it look like if a broadcast booth was more openly critical of the situation? You could ask the same question about myriad things we’ve experienced through the lens of the NFL over the last few years—social injustices, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health. Of course, it’s easier and more socially acceptable to just gloss over the reasons why we’re in the situation we’re in.
I understand the opposing viewpoint, which is that there is nothing left for us to do but smile and look for the positive. Indeed, football is good and cathartic during a time like this. But it can also be instructive and help change the attitudes of those who aren’t taking the pandemic as seriously as they should. That would be great.