NFL failing the biggest Covid-19 test?
Backpedaling is an important skill for NFL cornerbacks. For an NFL commissioner in the midst of a pandemic it’s not.
Yet if CBS analyst and former NFL kicker Jay Feely is to be believed that’s exactly what Roger Goodell did Tuesday when he told Feely prior to the Bills-Titans' game that he believed the corona-infested Titans did not “willingly violate league rules and protocols’’ despite 24 players and staff testing positive for the virus.
Barely a week ago Goodell privately told a number of other teams that the league would come down hard on the Titans, whose repeated problems with positive tests caused them to force postponements of games, abandon their training facility and finally play the Bills Tuesday with no real practice time.
The fact that Tennessee slapped the Bills silly may have set back coaching demands on players’ time by decades ... but that’s a story for a different day.
At the moment the issue is this: Did the organization and individual players break the rules or not? And, in doing so, did it result in a massive headache for the league, other teams and the Titans themselves?
The answer to all these is yes, unless Goodell concluded head coach Mike Vrabel, his staff and his players cannot read. If they can they would have known organizing their own practices away from the facility was verboten. Rumblings of other violations around face- covering protocols inside Tennessee’s facility were running rampant , but even if half of those are true that should have limited Goodell’s sense of leniency. After all, this disease has killed over 200,000 Americans in fewer than nine months.
Was Goodell simply saber rattling and got push back from teams like the Patriots, whose leader, Bill Belichick, has made clear he’ll run his own protocols, thank you? Goodell’s decision to postpone twice last week’s game between the Patriots and Broncos was in large part not so much for safety reasons as it was to avoid a player revolt in New England. And that could well have led to players refusing to play because of unsafe conditions after having been forced onto two planes flying them to Kansas City two days after Cam Newton tested positive for the virus.
One of those planes had half of the team on it. It is believed to have been the Corona Limited because everyone on it was presumed to have been in close contact with Newton in days leading up to his positive test. This was clearly not a medevac flight.
Then New England’s request for expanded locker room space in Kansas City because of Newton’s positive test was ignored. Did it come as any surprise then that when they got back to Foxboro, New England had a loss on its record and two more losses on its roster, including 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephan Gilmore?
What all this has wrought is a growing loss of faith in the league’s interest in player safety and doubts about whether the players’ union cares, either, a point made clear from comments made by Patriots’ player rep Jason McCourty.
McCourty said he had been on a number of recent conference calls with NFLPA leadership “trying to figure out who has our best interest in mind.’’ That seemed to hint that he and other players were wondering if anyone not in pads did.
The NFL’s blind eye to player safety goes all the way back to Red Grange’s murderous barnstorming tour with the Chicago Bears in 1925, when he and his teammates were asked to play 19 games in 67 days while traversing the country by rail. Forced to play with a battered knee and beaten body, Grange was never again the same player he’d been when he came out of the University of Illinois a month before that tour began.
Since then we’ve had repeated examples of coaches, teams and league management ignoring the health interests of players in the interest of making a buck. The ongoing concussion crisis is but the latest in a sad history of devaluing safety for profit. Was what the Patriots were forced to do last week -- to play a game in Kansas City -- not another example of that?
How much longer this charade of having things under control can continue remains to be seen. But backing off stiff penalties for violating protocols that were widely distributed both privately and publicly seems an unwise course of action. This is the time for renewed vigilance before the entire season turns into the kind of farce baseball became.
As of today, 12 games have been rescheduled, nine teams have been affected by that, labor-negotiated bye-week agreements have been broken (how about the union goes to the NLRB and files unfair labor practices?), 47 players and counting have been infected and some teams that never had a player test positive have seen their schedules torn apart.
Meanwhile, the league continues to disavow going to the “bubble’’ format that allowed the NBA and NHL to get through their truncated seasons and playoffs relatively problem free.
The league’s chief medical officer this week claimed “simply being in a bubble doesn’t keep us safe,’’ adding that the NFL feared risks to players’ mental health as a result of prolonged social distancing. Really? Is this the same league that showed minimal interest in players’ mental health when it came to the concussion issue and continues to deny suffering former players proper and fair benefits and compensation for the mental-health issues many of them struggle with today?
“Injuries are at an all-time high, and our bye week was burned up with practices,’’ Broncos’ safety Justin Simmons tweeted this week after learning his team had been told last week would now be considered their bye week despite having practiced nearly the entire week for a Patriots’ game that didn’t happen.
Players have begun to see that the league’s testing procedure, which comes with an 18-to-24 hour lag time in most cases, has resulted in players and coaches unknowingly infecting others, as allegedly happened in Tennessee. They see a league willing to pack players onto airplanes, which are seen as an incubator and spreading agent for the disease, even after one or more teammates already tested positive just to play a game they are ill-prepared for. They see a commissioner threatening large penalties and possible forfeiture of games one week and saying “only kidding” the next.
They see all this and wonder if the NFL’s purported claim of being committed to player safety first is just a meaningless tweet. Underneath it all many of them already know their doubts are justified, and, in all likelihood, management’s public concerns about player safety will again prove to be a mirage.
As the old saying goes, fool me once shame on you. Fool me again and again and again shame on me.
Each week that goes by the players who opted out of this crazy season seem to be the only ones truly concerned about player safety – their own. In the end, that’s how it is in the NFL. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where money always rules.
And that ain’t healthy, folks.