SALT LAKE CITY — The NFL is facing a COVID-19 crisis, and there’s plenty of finger-pointing to go around: from fans, from the league office, and from players and coaches.
The virus has shot through the Tennessee Titans’ roster. The Raiders, Patriots, Falcons and Jets have all seen players test positive, including first-round draft picks and stars like Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore. One game was postponed, another delayed and there could be more to come. The juggled calendar looks as bizarre as 2020, with Monday night doubleheaders and Tuesday night primetime slots.
And this is Week 5. Small-scale fears — that teams might lose star players for a period of time — build up to larger ones: namely, that the NFL season itself might fall apart, bringing an end to a welcome respite in a traumatic year.
Worried fans have taken to Twitter, shaming players and coaches alike for their infractions. The NFL has levied more than $1.7 million in fines to coaches, teams and players in violation of pandemic protocol. The blame-game-within-the-game might be fitting for 2020, but health experts contend that the league’s play-at-all-cost ethos and the close-contact nature of the game itself pose the greatest risk.
Fans have started acting as amateur COVID-19 sleuths. After a Patriots-Chiefs game, photos circulated of Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes embracing Gilmore without masks, in violation of postgame restrictions; Gilmore would test positive shortly thereafter. Similar footage of Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen hugging Las Vegas defensive lineman Maurice Hurst appeared after Hurst tested positive.
After the photos made waves, Mahomes issued a statement. “It was a little bit of a mental lapse,” he said, “just trying to show sportsmanship.” This has been a familiar pattern this season: mistake, calling-out, apology.
Coaches have come under fire as well, mostly for incorrect mask usage. Viewers caught Gruden, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Saints coach Sean Payton, and other notables wearing masks pulled below their noses, slung to the sides of their mouths, or, in the case of Belichick, tented like a bird’s beak across his upper lip.
Individual transgressions make for easy finger-pointing. When tight end Darren Waller of the Las Vegas Raiders hosted a charity event earlier this week, he and many of his teammates were photographed without masks. Fans were outraged. “I know they regret any harm they may have caused, and they’re very sensitive about it and we’ll handle it the right way,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said on his players’ behalf.
#Raiders Zay Jones, Nevin Lawson, Foster Moreau, Jason Witten, Derek Carr, Hunter Renfrow, Derek Carrier and Nathan Peterman all came out to support Darren Waller at his “Beyond The Wall” fundraising event. The Darren Waller Foundation aims to combat addiction in Vegas. pic.twitter.com/38G7HmhnnQ
— Tashan Reed (@tashanreed) September 29, 2020
Breaking the rules
The NFL’s COVID protocol mandates rules on testing, mask-wearing, distancing inside and outside of team facilities, and game day behavior, backed by hefty fines. The Las Vegas Raiders alone have been fined close to $600,000. Reports that Titans players conducted an informal workout while COVID was circulating within the team could lead to record-setting fines.
In response this week, the NFL issued beefed-up rules, most notably calling for video surveillance in team facilities to ensure proper social distancing and mask usage. Commissioner Roger Goodell pinned blame squarely on protocol violators, writing in a memo, “Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game.”
The league has a massive stake in seeing the season continue. According to The Wall Street Journal, even two missed weeks of play could have the league owing refunds to its TV partners, and a canceled season would mean losses of up to $4 billion in advertising revenue.
A no-win situation
Some observers have turned a finger on the NFL. “There’s a growing belief in the coaching community that the league is more concerned about blaming teams for outbreaks than preventing outbreaks from happening,” NBC Sports’ Mike Florio reported earlier this week, adding, “They think that the league wants to be able to say, in the event someone gets sick or worse, that the problem wasn’t the protocols but the failure of one or more teams to follow them.”
While social distancing and masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19, some players have doubted the NFL’s rules since they were announced over the summer. “This is a perfect example of NFL thinking in a nutshell,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted in July, when the league announced that opposing players would not be allowed to meet on the field after games. “Players can engage in a full contact game and do it safely. However, it is deemed unsafe for them to exchange jerseys after said game.”
This is a perfect example of NFL thinking in a nutshell. Players can go engage in a full contact game and do it safely. However, it is deemed unsafe for them to exchange jerseys after said game. https://t.co/fWefsUSVDc
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) July 9, 2020
The underlying question is whether it’s possible to safely play a contact sport like football during a viral pandemic. The NFL maintains that its job is not to eliminate risk but rather to manage it as best as possible.
“We have said all along that we expect positive cases,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said in a statement this week. “As long as the virus is endemic in our communities, we will see new cases among our teams. Risk mitigation, not elimination, is the key. Our protocols are designed to quickly identify new cases, get individuals the care they need, and prevent further spread of the virus.”
“All ideas were on the table for discussion,” Sills said, “and I think we landed at the place where everyone felt the most comfortable in terms of the safety balanced against the pragmatic aspects.”
But as long as games continue, finger-pointing figures to go on as well.