Fears over NFL’s resistance to change loom over Week One hopes

Despite his being unofficially barred from the league in 2017 as a result of protesting the custom of standing during the national anthem, many players in other sports have begun following in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps after protests against racial injustice this summer. It remains to be seen how the NFL will handle such gestures this season. Via Carmen Mandato, Getty Images

As America exits a summer marked equally by protest and pandemic, many, including myself, are eager for fall and football. But just because football is back does not mean the issues the country has tackled (or perhaps more accurately, run from) have disappeared. Far from disappearing, in fact, they have infiltrated stadiums from New York to Los Angeles: the NFL, will be tested by their response this season to COVID-19 and systematic racism. Unfortunately, their plans for dealing with these issues do not inspire much confidence.

It is safe to say that training camps, scheduled team practices before the season begins, exceeded expectations for the NFL’s response to COVID-19. Despite the league’s decision to not enforce a bubble as the NBA and NHL did, the number of infections remained consistently low. With over 2,000 rostered players, there were only 20 players on the newly implemented COVID-19 exempt list as of Sept. 4. NFL teams deserve praise for their rigorous approaches to testing and restrictions that allowed training camp to complete without serious interruption. However, just as a team’s good performance in practice does not guarantee success in regulation, the NFL’s success in combating COVID-19 in training camp does not mean the season will see similar results. There are several key differences between training camp and the season itself. First and foremost, teams do not travel for training camp, but every game this season will have at least one team traveling. Covid-19 hit baseball’s Miami Marlins hard in late July as they traveled to play games in Philadelphia. The Marlins registered 20 positive cases and despite the MLB postponing games, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that the entire season could be in jeopardy.

Ultimately, the MLB managed to adjust. But the NFL is a different animal. Football, unlike baseball, is a highly physical contact-sport. Any outbreak has a higher chance of spreading to the players and support staff of opposing teams, meaning any gameday outbreak could be catastrophic to overall league health. While the NFL plans to test players and team staff throughout the season, players and coaches will not be tested on the day of a game; they are hoping a negative test the day before will suffice. It may be improbable that a player will suddenly become infectious less than 24 hours after a negative test, but it is not impossible due to the nature of this disease. This oversight, along with an increased danger of exposure due to travel and teams lacking the same control over their players during the regular season that they had in training camps, could cause any singular outbreak to spread quickly throughout the league.

There is also the question of fans attending games this season. The majority of teams have decided against seating fans for the first few games, and the Washington Football Team has gone as far as canceling fan attendance for the entire season. However, some teams have decided to push ahead and seat thousands of fans in the middle of a pandemic for the Week One kickoff. The Jacksonville Jaguars plan to seat 17,000 (25 percent capacity), the Kansas City Chiefs want 16,000 (22 percent) and the Miami Dolphins 13,000 (20 percent). Additionally, the Dallas Cowboys have planned to seat fans without revealing the total number—but knowing the antics of owner Jerry Jones, I wouldn’t be surprised if theirs is the highest yet.

Even if social distancing and mask wearing mandates for fans are enforced, the mere fact that teams want to seat tens of thousands of people in one space is irresponsible at best. The NFL’s oversight with testing and travel may very well cause an outbreak, but the decision by some teams to seat fans by some teams will undoubtedly lead to the spread of the virus. If the NFL truly wanted to avoid COVID-19 affecting its season, it should have chosen a bubble approach in the first place, but in lieu of that, they should at least eliminate testing gaps and enforce a league-wide no-fan policy rather than letting individual teams and states decide for themselves. We have seen a similar patchwork of local-level policies fail to curtail the pandemic for the country as a whole, so this lack of initiative on the NFL’s part is frightening.

The NFL’s response to the American conversation on systemic racism and injustice is similarly lacking. During a summer of outrage and protest, the NFL decided to commit $250 million over ten years to combating racial injustice. They also chose to allow players to wear decals honoring victims of systematic racism, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, throughout the season, in addition to stenciling “It takes all of us” and “End Racism” into the endzones and playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for every Week One game. Although it is nice to see the NFL finally acknowledge systematic racism, these efforts are too little and too late, especially for a league with such an infamous history of hostile responses to player protest concerning systemic racism: The league voted to ban players and team staff from kneeling during the national anthem in 2019 after allegedly blacklisting Colin Kaepernick over his kneeling. Consequently, many players have voiced frustration that the NFL appears content to adopt token anti-racism measures over anything substantial. Former NFL superstar and hall-of-famer Ed Reed, upon hearing of the league’s plan to address systemic racism, remarked, “We’ve been knowing these messages…what are we really doing?” Many current NFL players agree with Reed: in response to NBA players boycotting games after Jacob Blake’s shooting, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and receiver Sterling Shepard announced that the Giants had not ruled out a boycott during the season. Finally, while donating $250 million is a good step, like the league’s other efforts, it is just the bare minimum of what should be expected. In fact, for each team, it comes down to less than $200 thousand more than the league minimum salary for one player per year. These are pennies in the NFL’s deep pockets. The NFL’s reluctance to support social change could further harm its image and profits among more socially conscious fans should it fail to respond mindfully to players. If nothing else, the NFL has proven that profit is its main motivator, so hopefully this is putting things in terms they will understand.

Considering that there are only two nonwhite and no Black team owners, it remains to be seen if the NFL and its franchises have the will or capacity to do anything beyond paying lip service to anti-racist efforts. For the sake of the NFL I hope to be proven wrong. However, like its COVID-19 guidelines, the NFL’s anti-racism plan continues to raise more doubts than reassurances.

Should worse come to worst, it will be increasingly difficult for Americans who believe in the virtues of science and equality to support the National Football League. Like the rest of the country, the NFL is facing a crossroads. With the disparate political leanings of its fanbase, the NFL can choose to double down on its facade of a “patriotism” that excludes minorities and bemoans peaceful protest, much like our president has, or take substantive steps towards the correct side of history while maintaining a large chunk of their fanbase. Even if they make the right decision, be wary; their lust for profit at the expense of their players’ and fans’ health has revealed what their true incentives are.

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