NFL Amid COVID-19: What Are We Doing Here?

Matty F. Brown

I love football. Being from Britain, I’m particularly grateful for the opportunity to write about the best sport. I coach football, I religiously watch football, and I need football—well, almost. The COVID-19 pandemic has put things in perspective. We all want to enjoy a 2020 NFL season and those in football media want to keep their jobs. Duh! However, the NFL’s adapted plans for football to go ahead have left me feeling one way: What are we doing here?

2020 is perverse and everything feels abnormal. In the NFL world, headlines such as Pro Football Talk’s “More teams are exploring the possibility of keeping a quarterback in quarantine” drive this home. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told NBC Sports’ Peter King, in his FMIA column, that Russell Wilson and Geno Smith won’t be in the same meeting room. This is Seattle’s preventative measure for keeping at least one quarterback COVID-free.

How did getting infected become an accepted risk in regards to football being played? In what twisted reality is this remotely okay? Don’t worry though! The NFL Players Association raised concerns to the NFL about the issue. The NFL’s response was to consult with their team doctors, doctors who then told the NFLPA, via conference call, that they believed it was safe to open camps. No hint of personal interest or pressured decisions here! Neutrality is needed? Come off it.

NFL head coaches are tasked with winning games. They have been planning within the scenario handed down by the league. Where the competitive spirit of coaching ends though is a big question mark. This worry extends to players. Ultimately, it should be experts in this virus taking the key decision-making out of the hands of team staff.

Nothing demonstrates this better than what baseball’s Miami Marlins are currently experiencing. Matt Breen of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Marlins learned before Sunday’s game with the Phillies that three of their players had tested positive for COVID-19. After holding a player-only meeting to decide if they should play, the Marlins decided to go ahead anyway - the virus was treated like a hamstring strain or sore knee. 

The following Monday, eight more players and two coaches tested positive, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Jesse Rogers. Tuesday brought four additional positive tests, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. The total number of Miami confirmed COVID-19 infections, at the time of publishing, stands at 16 players and 2 staff. Marlins manager Don Mattingly told The Athletic’s Jayson Stark and Ken Rosenthal that his team “never really considered not playing.” Miguel Rojas, an experienced veteran, said it was “never our mentality” to not play. This insanity has jeopardized the entire MLB season.

What happens when a franchise quarterback gets COVID-19? The test is administered by a team doctor and the star signal caller only informs his coach. The hopes of a team would be infected, a higher-stakes situation than what the Marlins faced. It’s dangerously naive to believe football is any different to baseball in this respect. It does not require an active imagination to picture some disastrous cover-up.

On the subject of differences, football diverges to baseball in one crucial aspect. It’s a full contact, violent sport, while baseball is naturally distanced and non-contact. Not great for COVID-19, which is passed through respiratory droplets. Again, what are we doing here?

There is not necessarily a clear right or wrong on COVID-related issues. There is some trial and error involved as scientists learn more about the disease. New revelations are made day by day. This is certainly a "new normal." However, there are preventative measures that the experts say everyone should be taking - for instance, wearing a mask. Decisions should be informed by science.

Indeed, the NBA is seeing promising signs from its "bubble" approach. The aggressive measure was designed to eliminate as much chance as possible of players becoming infected. Yes, bubbles will suffer from occasional selfishness, like Lou Williams of the Clippers. Overall, though, the NBA adapted as a league to the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak in the USA. They invested $170 million to play while protecting players and communities. The MLS, NWSL, and the WNBA have all implemented a bubble of their own too. The NFL has the resources to put something like this together.

Details of the NFL’s full plan were outlined in a memo obtained by ESPN’s Dan Graziano. The NFL is going to observe how players interact in public settings. Disciplining and fining them for visiting "high-risk" events is not nearly as effective as a full-on bubble approach and is incredibly difficult to police. In fact, there was no mention of bubbles. Just a vague reference to "reckless activity" being punished. If only COVID-19 was only contracted when people were behaving recklessly! Really, the NFL’s COVID-19 adaptation is far too normal. Fans allowed in stands depending on state rules?! Really?!

Yes, it would be a giant logistical challenge for the roster size of professional football to implement a more extreme strategy similar to the NBA’s. However, the NFL had the chance and could still implement something like this - it's needed. Right now, the NFL is relying heavily on every single team member to act impeccably in the times of a highly-infectious virus. Their response today was for Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills to talk to ESPN about a "virtual football bubble." This half-hearted approach is not taking COVID-19 in the USA as seriously as it should be.

Dangerous tweets such as this from NFL Network-employed Kyle Brandt miss the point.

Yeah, you clearly don’t "get it," Kyle.

It is not a matter of being negative or "rooting for the COVID" when people say COVID-19 will impact the 2020 NFL season, just as it already has. Scaremongering does not apply. This is about being factual and realistic regarding a highly-infectious, unfamiliar virus. This cannot be wished away via ignorant optimism. To blindly accept the current plan, to be okay with players getting infected for the good of football, is madness.

"The players, they’re going to all get sick, that’s for sure,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians told The Tampa Bay Times. “It’s just a matter of how sick they get. We've got to be careful.”

Arians isn’t drinking the positivity Kool-Aid, but it's shocking to read such numb statements. COVID-19 makes people pretty damn sick. What are we doing here? It doesn’t have to be this way.

"We've said all along that we expected there would be positive cases among players and personnel," NFL Chief Medical Officer Sills told ESPN's Kevin Seifert in a Monday phone interview. "And there may be a number on each team. As long as this virus is endemic in society, we're going to continue to see new cases."

Dystopian craziness. Plus, the likelihood that full-contact football further accelerates the spread of the virus is being overlooked.

From a football perspective, those who point towards players not being high-risk in relation to dying are short-sighted. Getting infected with this virus is going to negatively impact careers, potentially ending them. Far more importantly, it is going to affect the quality of life for players across the league. Just look at Denver Broncos EDGE Rusher Von Miller, an asthmatic who was struggling to breathe a month after getting the virus. Scientists suspect COVID-19 affects other organs too, like the kidneys or brain.

On July 25th, Laurent Duvernay Tardif, the Chiefs’ starting right guard, opted out of his contract. Tardif took advantage of the COVID-19 adjustments to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This final decision is going to become a common reaction. (Maybe it's this which is the driving force behind a new NFL strategy, with true player power realized.) 

Seahawks guard Chance Warmack opted out on Monday. Meanwhile, six Patriots - so far - have opted out. Tuesday also saw a trio of talented defensive tackles opt out across the league: Eddie Goldman of the Bears, Star Lotulelei of the Bills, and Michael Pierce of the Vikings. Players have an opt-out deadline of Monday August 3 and several more could still choose to not play after that date, but they would not be eligible for the $150,000 stipend - or $350,000 if they are eligible for the "higher risk" medical category.

Tardif's choice was particularly brave. After all, the lineman is a doctor on the front-lines of the battle and his decision to continue fighting the virus is commendable. By opting out, Tardif’s $2.75 million 2020 salary turned into $150,000. (His 2021 salary will be his 2020 salary, with opted-out contracts tolling under the new CBA terms) More than the financial implications, what really stood out about Tardif’s decision was the third paragraph of his Twitter statement.

“I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities simply to play the sport I love,” wrote Tardif.

Ultimately, this is about putting the health of people above the need to play football. Sports, football included, are morally uplifting and would provide unity in these increasingly divided times. But at what cost? Current NFL storylines do not suggest football can be played without numerous infections. The matter-of-fact acceptance is horrifying. Even if your favorite player manages to survive COVID-19 and avoid any lasting effects, he is still likely to transmit the virus. 

For football, the Marlins situation and player opt-outs should be alarming moments that inspire a re-think. The current strategy is not enough. We are living through a historic time and it would be wrong not to raise these concerns. What are we doing here? Think of your loved ones, think of your communities, think of your fellow Americans. We can save lives.

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