We reached an inflection point last week with the NFL and its determination to play through the still-surging COVID-19 virus. The Broncos played a NFL game without an NFL-ready quarterback. The 49ers abruptly moved to Arizona after being told by local authorities that they would have to practice and play elsewhere. And, most conspicuously, the Ravens—who play Tuesday, after last playing on a Wednesday—had an eye-opening 10 consecutive days of positive COVID-19 cases before playing their game a day after that streak ended.
I certainly understand the economic priorities of NFL owners, and not shutting down a $15 billion business, even partially. And I admit I am complicit in watching and investing my time in the league. But I continue to wonder the same question that I have been wondering since the summer: Are we really doing this?
Competitive balance? Not this year
The NFL, more so than any major professional sports league, has competitive balance baked into its system with the draft, salary cap, free agency restraints and equal broadcast revenue sharing. But COVID-19 does not care about competitive balance.
The Broncos had no quarterbacks against the Saints, with no realistic chance of winning, letting alone competing against a team that was playing a backup quarterback. And the 49ers played the Packers with a depleted roster on a Thursday night, despite the NFL having the ability to push the game until later in the weekend. Some teams have fans; some teams do not. The league’s message: Tough luck. We now have precedent from the Broncos situation with quarterbacks last week: Play with whoever you have on the roster and deal with it.
Ravens’ outbreak shows NFL priorities
The Ravens’ outbreak last week was about more than competitive imbalance. It showed the NFL’s true priority for 2020: getting through it. The NFL bought every second of time it could to play the Ravens-Steelers game—pushing the game from Thursday to Sunday to Tuesday to Wednesday—rather than moving the game to a still-unused Week 18.
The NFL message regarding a Week 18 is that the league doesn’t want to go there unless we absolutely, positively have to. But did that situation not qualify as a have to? Was it safe to have the Ravens, a team with 23 players on the reserve/COVID-19 with positives tests in the 10 days preceding the game—and that is just from players, not including staff—play a football game, an activity that is the polar opposite of social distancing? It is hard to believe that player health and safety was prioritized.
The NFL has now set precedent: Even 10 days of continuing infections and 20-plus players put on the reserve/COVID-19 list will not justify a postponement to a Week 18. Tuesday night the Ravens will play another game still having 10 players not the reserve/COVID-19 list! The NFL’s priority is clear: Play the games, play the playoffs, play the Super Bowl and reassess after that. Abundance of caution? Well, that was for an earlier time in the season. Now, they’re simply playing through.
College football has had over 100 games rescheduled or canceled, not to mention multiple conferences that decided not to play at all. This has happened despite the fact that college football is a key economic driver for many schools’ non-revenue sports and overall budgets.
The NFL’s insistence on playing the Ravens-Steelers game last week, and even playing the Ravens-Cowboys this Tuesday tonight, begs the question: What, exactly, would have to happen to postpone a game to a later week, or cancel the game? It is hard to find an answer to that.
The mystery cases
When asked what would concern me most about playing this year were I still a team executive, my answer has been clear: negative outcomes.
We hear very little about the effects of the virus on the hundreds of NFL players who have contracted it, and perhaps we all assume, “They’re young, they’re strong, they’re healthy; they’ll be fine!” But that is certainly not always the case.
Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list twice this season, once on Aug. 21 and then again the first week of September; he will remain on the list through the season. Packers running back A.J. Dillon was placed on the COVID-19 list on Nov. 2 and remains there as of this writing. Raiders lineman Trent Brown was activated this week after two stints on the list, the latter from Nov. 5 to Dec. 2. And, perhaps most concerning, Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart wall, a condition that the Bills confirmed was related to COVID-19.
I tried to speak to a couple of these players through their agents; none were willing. However, some of the agents I’ve spoken to this year say things like, “They [the NFL] are playing with these kids’ lives,” and, “They’re putting these guys at risk every day.”
I know the counter arguments: The players want to get paid, they had a chance to opt out, etc. But there is so much about this virus that we do not know. When advising a couple of players thinking of opting out this summer, they had similar concerns—expressing that the teams were doing a good job, but not wanting to be the “guinea pigs” with this virus, knowing next year we will know a lot more.
The players mentioned above, and more like them, are the unfortunate stories of the NFL playing through the pandemic. We have not heard much about them, perhaps due to the lack of a well-known name among the group, but these stories eventually need to be told.
Would I have played this season if I were NFL commissioner? My sense is that I would have tried, with more requirements and directives about sequestration of players and coaches, whether in hotels, conference centers, college campuses, etc. I thought that eight semi-bubbles, by division, would have been a good option, but that never seemed in the cards for the NFL.
The data is clear from the NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLS, etc.: Bubbling works. The data is also clear from MLB, college football and the NFL: Not bubbling will lead to multiple positive COVID-19 infections. While the teams have been recommend/advised to live inside a tightly controlled environment, there still have been hundreds of infections.
Will the NFL make it through the season, the postseason and the Super Bowl? If the Ravens situation is any indication of the NFL’s determination to do so, playing after 10 consecutive days of positive cases and over 20 players infected, it certainly will. But prioritizing the business of football over an abundance of caution does create risk.
What will be the long-term consequences to other players, staff and their families? What if something drastic happens to a player, staff or member of their families? There will be lawyers.
In March, one positive COVID-19 case in the NBA (Rudy Gobert) shut down sports. In December an NFL team played a game after half its roster either tested positive or was a high-risk close contact.
I say it every week: The business of sports always wins. It is winning now, but I am left with the ongoing question: Should it?