INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL’s worst fear these days, aside from teams or fans contracting the coronavirus, is that the pandemic will cancel the 2020 season.
Because so much uncertainty exists about the disease, which has caused 1,596 deaths in Indiana, has the realistic expectation for games with fans in the stands been downgraded on the proverbial NFL injury report to doubtful?
If that’s true — it seems impossible to test 60,000 fans before each game — how much are players in jeopardy? It would take only one positive player test for a team to face a potential quarantine. If that happens, taking one team out of the NFL equation for one or two weeks impacts everything.
When one NBA player, Rudy Gobert, tested positive in March, commissioner Adam Silver didn’t hesitate to suspend the season indefinitely.
“I’m telling fans not to get their hopes up, just like I’m telling everybody who wants to see a concert,” said Mark Bochan, MD, Ph.D., who has two decades of infectious disease practice on the Northside of Indianapolis. “There’s a nice, little roll-out plan and everybody is supposed to be business-as-usual by July. That’s assuming that we’ve got a handle on this thing.
“Right now, it’s a little too early to make those calls. Based on what I’m seeing over the last 60 days, we’re still going to be dealing with this well into the summer. There will be enough worry that it probably will delay at least an on-time start.”
At least? As in, a strong possibility exists that the NFL season might not happen? Bochan doesn’t definitively say that. But he couldn’t be more candid about his concerns.
If the 53-year-old doctor has learned anything from his extensive work in the field, it’s that the current medical climate must experience significant improvements before there can be any NFL kick-offs. His hospital routine in the coronavirus trenches these past two months has required 16-hour days with continual frustration. Testing isn’t accurate enough and it takes too much time to get results with patients in peril.
He’s understandably worried about what could happen if 60,000 fans pack Lucas Oil Stadium for an Indianapolis Colts game in September. And even if fans aren’t allowed in the stands, Bochan doesn’t see how any infectious disease doctor can suggest players won’t face some risk.
A popular narrative suggests that both teams could be temperature tested to ensure the games continue.
“The assumption in that statement is that the test is accurate,” Bochan said. “Even with the blood tests, 20-30 percent of the time right now it’s wrong. It’s terrible. That’s one of the things that we clinicians have been struggling with. We have a sensitivity, which means if you have a negative test and you don’t have the disease, our current testing sensitivity is around 70 percent. That means if you have a negative test, three out of 10 people still have the disease.”
The desired percentage for test sensitivity is in the 90s, he said. And don’t think that getting those test results back as soon as possible is a given. He’s been told four hours too often, then it takes four days.
“It’s killing us,” he said. “Testing is supposed to be getting improved upon. If you listen to national media, tests are being approved left and right. Well, guess what? The FDA came out and is now requiring improved data for approval. Improve what? Sensitivity, meaning if it’s negative you really don’t have the disease.”
Bochan acknowledges that NFL players, based on younger age and physical fitness, are at lesser risk. People at about 65 or older are most susceptible.
But he’s also convinced there isn’t any way to completely remove all risk for players so soon.
“I’ll be interested to see how much risk tolerance there is in having games with players,” Bochan said. “Maybe by the end of the summer, we have some better testing that makes everybody feel better, but I don’t know.
“But don’t be telling me that there’s no chance that there’s any COVID in that stadium because it’s probably there.”
Think about how the public has been warned to practice six feet of social distancing while wearing masks. Now think about how offensive and defensive linemen are sweating and spitting in each other’s faces for the better part of three hours.
“There’s a reason the social number is six feet because you can actually launch a droplet three and a half feet,” Bochan said. “And you aren’t playing a game six feet away.
“Fact is, it definitely ain’t happening by September. We’re still going to have active cases. We’re still seeing a lot right now. The issue with this virus is that it’s transmitted in droplets. So anybody within six feet of you with a cough puts you at risk. I personally would say that risk probably isn’t worth a football game.”
He’s equally certain the vaccine process can’t be rushed and must include human trials over a period of time to ensure no serious side effects.
“Until we know we have a vaccine in place that has good protection or we can do a blood test that says, ‘Hey, you’ve already had this infection, so you are now protected,’ there’s no way we can give you any answers,” he said. “Everything else is just supposition.
“You’re probably looking at a year from now, there’s no way we’re going to have any data before a year. And no matter what you hear, it's unlikely there’s a vaccine coming out at the end of the year. And if there is, it’s going to be in its first set-up trial, which means we’ll have no idea if it works or not.”
Indiana’s stay-at-home directive since March 25 was eased for all but three counties on Monday, when stores and malls were permitted to open with 50 percent capacity. Personal services businesses such as hair salons and barbershops can open by appointment only, and restaurants and bars serving food can open at 50 percent capacity. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s multi-stage plan ends with completely reopening the state by July 4.
Bochan and medical experts fear that reopening society will result in a dramatic increase in coronavirus cases which will overwhelm hospitals.
On the Northwest side of town, the Colts will be permitted to have no more than 75 employees at the team headquarters on Tuesday as part of the NFL’s phased re-opening of facilities. But coaches aren’t allowed back and the only players who can visit must be rehabilitating an injury.
Team ticket-sales advisories to fans have included the note: “The NFL is preparing to play the 2020 season as scheduled and with increased protocols and safety measures in place. The league will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary in order to conduct games in as safe and efficient a manner as possible, based on the latest advice of medical and public health officials and in full compliance with current and future government regulations.
“As such, if a game is canceled and cannot be replayed, or is played under conditions that prohibit fans from attending, ticket refund information can be found at colts.com/Tickets.”
Mike Fox has dealt with the NFL long enough to know every possible precaution is being explored. In 33 years of working for the city’s Capital Improvement Board, 29 of those were as director of the Hoosier/RCA Dome and Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Colts have called home.
Although Fox, 57, of Zionsville, Ind., hasn’t been a stadium director since 2017, he’s been contacted repeatedly by companies looking for influential city contacts to pitch coronavirus testing. If he’s out of the loop but hearing from these companies, the NFL has to be hearing from more.
The feasibility of testing 60,000 fans before an NFL game sounds impossible, but it wouldn’t be the first time a daunting problem just took time to solve.
“I’ve said this 100 times through this, nobody thought everyone would have to walk through a metal detector to get into a facility until 9/11 hit,” Fox said. “Then it took years for everyone to have full-blown metal detectors installed.
“Well, here we are again. What’s the next thing? Is it some sort of scanner? Is it a guy with a thermometer at the entrance to at least say, ‘OK, they don’t have a fever’ and then they ask a couple of questions? There’s a way, but is it worth it to the fan?”
If he were still on the job at Lucas Oil Stadium and the NFL proceeded with games, would Fox consider not reporting for work?
“No, I go,” he said. “That’s not because I’m the guy in charge and I’m leading the charge. I go because I know what steps will be taken. I know the environment. I would have a mask on. I would have gloves. I would get checked. I would carry my own thermometer, if I had to. I would go. I would go with a lot of caution, but I would absolutely 100 percent report to work.
“If I can do the best job to protect myself, I feel like I’ve done what I can do.”
Should the NFL ultimately decide to proceed as scheduled in September, Bochan will be keeping a watchful eye on what happens. Suffice to say the former Colts season ticketholder won’t do that from the stands.
“Any sports event, I’m going to be interested in,” the doctor said. “There’s going to be a level of risk-taking that I personally won’t do. I’ll want to see if I’m right or wrong about this. It didn’t take many NBA games to shut it down, did it?
“You open up sports, let’s say in early August, 50,000 people are there and it just takes one late infection, and we could potentially see many cases downstream. Then what happens?”
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)