IRVING, Texas — It took five months, but COVID-19 finally has the NFL back on the same shaky ground where it spent the balance of 2020.
The reason why the questions of last fall and winter are resurfacing have hit the league like a hurricane as owners and execs gathered for their annual December meeting in suburban Dallas. The Rams lost five players for Monday night’s game in Arizona and have seen their player count on the COVID-19/reserve list bulge to 13 since. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Browns’ number is up to 15 players, in addition to coach Kevin Stefanski.
Both teams are now in intensive protocols (which means masking and doing everything other than practicing virtually), and both teams are on short weeks—Cleveland hosts the Raiders on Saturday, while the Rams have the Seahawks coming in Sunday. The league is holding firm that those games are on as scheduled, but no one knows what Thursday will bring.
Which underscores the uncertainty facing the NFL and the existential question about its season.
Is this sustainable?
That’s the question the powers that be were asking Wednesday morning in Texas, with some resignation that continuing on as planned will put the league and its teams on a collision course with scheduling questions, competitive-balance problems and, perhaps, sequels to last year’s situations involving Kendall Hinton and the Saints’ running back room.
The difference between this year and last? There is, without question, less of an acceptance that those sorts of things have to happen because we’re in a pandemic and that’s the way it goes. And thus, an idea has emerged that has significant support among teams: incentivizing players to get a COVID-19 booster by telling them they won’t be regularly tested anymore if they do.
It would require, for sure, the league’s taking steps back on its aggressive (and mostly successful) posture in managing the virus with players and staff over the last 20 months. But the NFL’s already started to do it with vaccinated players—going from daily to weekly testing, relaxing masking protocols and mostly eliminating close-contact rules for those guys (last year’s rules remain in place for the unvaccinated). The league has told teams at the meetings it is starting discussions on significant changes to COVID-19 protocols with the NFLPA—all of this, of course, requires negotiation with the union.
Would there be added risk? Sure. But the truth is very few workplaces in the U.S. outside of professional sports are testing asymptomatic employees regularly, and there’s been no evidence of any on-field transmission in any sport since the start of the pandemic. And the league could, simultaneously, create more safeguards for players and staff within their buildings.
That idea was part of NFL executive stern message to football ops people in town during Tuesday’s labor seminar. He told them it was on teams to strictly enforce protocols with numbers rising (the player total between Monday and Tuesday was around 70, easily the steepest spike of the season), and that the league could put all 32 teams in enhanced protocols soon as a precaution to keep the season on track.
Whether or not that happens, incentivizing the booster would create a safer environment for everyone in the NFL, while cutting down on the chance of disrupting the season. Essentially, by focusing on treating symptoms, rather the seeking the virus out, it’d be the NFL’s start toward learning to live with COVID-19 long-term. Giants owner John Mara said himself Wednesday morning, walking into the meetings, “It seems like it’s never going away.”
Learning to live with the virus would also be an acknowledgment that we’re in a much different space than we were a year ago. We have vaccines. We have booster shots. A small percentage of NFL players who’ve popped positive tests this year have gotten sick. The testing has produced different results, too—most guys aren’t testing out, for one reason or another, and have had to wait the full 10 days to return (T.J. Watt was one anomaly in that regard)—and moving games would be much more difficult this season, with fans back in the stands.
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All of it meant this turning point was likely coming, and it just so happens that we reached it right as the league’s power brokers were gathered in one place, positioned to work through what their next move will be.
Don’t be surprised if that move comes soon.
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