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The NFL has a huge COVID-19 problem – a problem that many may argue the league had ample time to avoid. The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020; which was exactly one week before the start of the league new year. Although the 2020 season was officially underway, rookie minicamp – the first on-field team interactions – was not set to begin until May. Despite watching the NBA execute a flawless return to live sports, the NFL seemingly sat on its hands when it came to proactive planning. A bubble was never really a feasible option given the sheer number of personnel needed on a daily basis to make the operations of the 32 teams run smoothly.
Additionally, the NBA’s bubble was in effect for roughly three months. The NFL playing season begins with rookie minicamp in May and concludes in February with the Super Bowl. So, as the NBA and MLB surged forward with their seasons – one with a plan and the other running on trial-and-error – the NFL took the path least desirable and approached the 2020 season with a “wait and see” mentality and their focus solely on one thing: Finishing the season by any means necessary.
Let’s Test It Out
The NFL’s approach to containing COVID has included daily testing, virtual media workrooms, team facilities equipped with daily symptom screening and temperature checks, limited fans, and a new Reserve/COVID-19 list. The approach is based on an honor code that assumes that once away from team facilities, players are quarantining at home and limiting their risk of exposure. Any player that tests positive has to be cleared by the team’s head physician before returning and will be subjected to additional cardiac screening. Additionally, contact tracing identifies those who have come in close contact, including in-game contact, with those receiving a positive test.
Those guidelines still did not prevent an outbreak within the Tennessee Titans organization within the first couple weeks of the season. The Titans had 24 people, 13 of which were players, test positive for COVID between Sept. 24 and Oct. 11. As a result, two games were postponed and the league fined the organization $350,000. Video reviews and player interviews disclosed that the team had violated the facilities mask mandate and also worked out elsewhere once their facility was closed. The only thing that saved the Titans from losing draft picks or forfeiting games is the fact that the players were not adequately informed when that they were not cleared to meet or workout in groups once the facility had been closed due to COVID.
And the NFL Played On…
Yet and still, the season moved forward. Each week, more and more players were placed on and taken off the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Facilities were shut down a few days, but games continued as scheduled up until a surge in the pandemic hit Week 12 like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, the league that was bigger than COVID found itself in the grips of the highly contagious pathogen. The Denver Broncos found themselves with no quarterbacks available for their game against the Saints as three of them had prolonged indoor, unmasked contact with the fourth, who had tested positive. They were forced to start Kendall Hinton, a rookie wide receiver on the practice squad, at quarterback.
Although we talked about the logistics issues that have prevented a league-wide bubble, the San Francisco 49ers will undoubtedly find themselves in one if they hope to finish the season. Santa Clara County, where Levi Stadium is located, has banned all high school, college, and professional sports as part of their new COVID-19 restrictions. Surrounding counties adopted similar policies and now the Niners have to finish out their season playing in the Cardinals’ stadium in Arizona.
That wasn’t the end of the fallout as the Baltimore Ravens have been hit with the league’s worst outbreak yet. There have been several positive tests for several consecutive days and at one point, 20 players were on the Reserve/COVID-19 list including league MVP Lamar Jackson. As a result, the Ravens game against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers has been rescheduled twice. Originally scheduled for Thanksgiving, the game was postponed to Tuesday, and then finally to Wednesday. As the team’s flight left for the game, the Ravens had two more positive tests but the game is still scheduled to be played.
This is the second time the Steelers have had their game schedule affected by the actions of another team. Their game against the Titans was the first one impacted by COVID this season and the postponement of the Ravens one means the Steelers will play three games in 12 days – physically taxing in a game with as much contact as football.
Band-Aid on a Bullet Wound
The NFL has been reactionary at best when it comes to dealing with COVID-19 and their attempts to stop the bleed are too little, and perhaps, too late. With Thanksgiving approaching, the league announced on Nov. 18 that all 32 teams would be operating under the league’s intensive protocol through the remainder of the season. Under the protocol, previously reserved for teams with outbreaks, all players and coaches must have a negative from the previous day’s testing before entering the facility. Additionally, all meetings must be conducted virtually or outdoors with the exception of those with a pre-approved plan, masks must be worn at all times including on the practice field, all meals must be grab and go, and locker room use is strongly discouraged unless it’s game day.
Since the beginning of November, the Steelers, Raiders, Patriots, and Saints have all been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars and some were docked draft picks for COVID-related violations. With the absence of a bubble or more restrictive practices, the NFL knew that this was bound to happen to some degree. So, why still play without a defined plan of action?
Must Be the Money
The NFL has already cancelled the Draft and Pro Bowl, both scheduled to be held in Las Vegas to cement the arrival of the league in Sin City. However, the Super Bowl is still scheduled to be played on its signature weekend with limited fans. While both the Draft and Pro Bowl are more so fan experiences, the Super Bowl is a money machine with millions of dollars in ad revenue alone — not to mention the steep ticket prices. Any major deviations from the original game schedule could impact the dates of Super Bowl weekend, and the lowest television ratings for sports during the pandemic have been for sports taking place outside of their original season.
With the Reserve/COVID-19 list treated with looser parameters than Injured Reserve, the pandemic is merely a blip on the radar to revenue when it comes to the NFL. Despite the league’s knowledge of the ongoing outbreak, the Ravens were still allowed to practice and meet last Monday and Tuesday in efforts to preserve the Thanksgiving night showdown with the Steelers. For eight straight days, the Ravens had a new positive test and the solution was to move the game a few days back. In another attempt to put a band-aid over a waterfall, the league ordered all team facilities to be shut down to all in-person activities on Monday and Tuesday following the Week 12 COVID calamity. However, Monday Night Football still went on as planned.
According to a study conducted by Team Marketing Report, the NFL stands to lose $2.7 billion in ticket revenue due to COVID and is determined to limit any further monetary loss – even if it means that teams will hobble through the regular season and playoffs with rosters decimated by the pandemic. Players will continue to advocate for the season to continue simply because they want to get paid. Thanks to a deal struck between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, players will not be paid any salary, per-game roster bonuses or other incentives for any regular season games that are not played as a result of a cancellation of games by the Commissioner related to COVID-19.
The Unsinkable NFL
By its actions, it has become abundantly clear that if there is a stoppage or pause in NFL play, it will have to come from an outside force. It’s almost as if the league views any deviation from their original schedule as a stain on its ego – and we know how they feel about that ego.