We’re just about at the halfway point of the NFL season, and it has been a pretty entertaining one so far. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs sit atop the American Football Conference (AFC) with records of 8-0 and 8-1 respectively, while the National Football Conference (NFC) is a tight race; three teams stand at 6-2, but none better than that. The 0-9 New York Jets are looking historically awful. Tom Brady is thriving with his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3), following his departure from the New England Patriots, where his old coach Bill Belichick is now floundering at 3-5. The NFC East still does not have a team with a winning record (the Philadelphia Eagles lead with a record of 3-4-1) and remains a perfect picture of incompetence. All in all, it looks to be an interesting year of football with an exciting playoff picture. Yet, the biggest question in the NFL isn’t who will make the Super Bowl, but will there be a Super Bowl?
That may seem dramatic, and admittedly, it is unlikely the NFL would ever fully cancel the playoffs or Super Bowl (way too much money to be made), but it is realistic that it gets delayed big time.
Here we go again, he’s gonna talk about COVID-19, I hear you saying. You’re right. I am. As repetitive as it may seem to always talk about the virus and its effects on sports, the reality is that after eight months of its presence in the United States and multiple professional sports leagues’ successful seasons, coronavirus is still threatening to shut down the NFL.
We have already seen some blunders from the league, which shouldn’t be surprising given that they chose not to create a bubble and are having fans at games. I also believe the NFL is the most poorly run professional sports league in America (in terms of treatment of athletes, social justice and just general concern for anything other than the income of the 32 people who own the teams). This set the stage perfectly for some hiccups, so let’s take a look at what the NFL has screwed up so far.
The NFL has rescheduled 14 games this year. That may not be much compared to losing a whole season, but when you consider that each team only plays a 16-game regular season over a period of 17 weeks, you realize how significant rescheduling even one contest is. The thing is, though, these 14 games were rescheduled largely as a result of just two team outbreaks: the Tennessee Titans and everyone’s favorite cheaters, the New England Patriots.
There are two ways to look at this. One, only two out of 32 teams have messed up really bad so far. On the other hand, it only took two teams messing up to throw the NFL schedule into disarray. Back in mid-October the Patriots had five positive COVID-19 tests (including big names like reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and former MVP Cam Newton), with even more players placed on the COVID list as close contacts of those who tested positive. As a result, their game against the Denver Broncos had to be rescheduled multiple times.
The Titans were even more of a mess. At least 23 players and team personnel tested positive for COVID-19. There were reports that Titans players repeatedly didn’t wear masks and that the organization disregarded safety rules, but the NFL only handed out the lame punishment of a $350,000 fine (a lot of money to you or me, but for an NFL team that is pocket change). Because the Titans had so many positive cases, they had to postpone two of their games, which meant that they had to rearrange what weeks they played other teams and then those teams had to rearrange their schedules, resulting in a massive rippling effect across the league.
Meanwhile, the NFL doesn’t seem to care. Allow me to rant for a second. They have made no contingency plans, like shortening the season to allow for rescheduling or adding an extra week to the schedule to get all the games in. On top of that, they don’t seem to have any regard for player safety (seems pretty on-brand at this point) because their protocols just don’t make any sense if your goal is to reduce infection rates. First of all, how can anyone on the team not be considered a close contact if they are all practicing together every day, sharing a locker room and playing a game that literally requires you to wrap your arms around someone and throw your body on top of theirs while you’re both breathing heavily? It’s comical to pick and choose which teammates are close contacts when a player tests positive. But don’t take my word for it. Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty told reporters, “It is not about our best interest, or our health and safety, it is about, ‘What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good, looks good, and how can we go out there and play games?’” His comments were in reference to the fact that the NFL held a Patriots-Chiefs game just three days after Newton tested positive. McCourty brings up very valid concerns: in what world is it a good idea to play tackle football three days after one of the players on those teams tested positive? It seems like you are begging for an outbreak at that point.
Additionally, the NFL just hasn’t been incentivizing teams to follow the rules carefully. They have been handing out these petty fines, only hundreds of thousands of dollars, to teams that are worth billions. These fines are in no way deterring teams from breaking the rules. They did recently up the penalty to a loss of a sixth round draft pick for the Las Vegas Raiders, since they were repeat offenders, but that is not a high enough pick to make much of a statement. What the NFL needs to do is start making teams forfeit games if it is determined that they caused an outbreak by not following the correct protocols. This would kill two birds with one stone: fix their scheduling problem and deter teams from breaking the rules. The reports are that teams just aren’t being that careful around the league, and forcing even just one team to forfeit a game because they have an outbreak caused by ignoring protocols would immediately get the attention of the entire league. My guess is that you would only have to send that message once, and then nobody would play around with the rules anymore. No NFL team will willingly give away a game. It is time someone was held responsible for breaking the rules, putting the season at risk and endangering others.
Let me finish up this rant with something that perhaps infuriates me more than anything else: the NFL is still trying to have fans. They just can’t give up ticket sales, can they? It’s not like they are financially struggling, and inviting fans to stadiums is just so unbelievably stupid. Getting a large crowd of drunk people to hang out together in a stadium should be the last thing we bring back into our lives at this point. Grow up. Get over the fact that you can’t have fans in the stands for one season during a freaking global pandemic.
We’re all trying to navigate these difficult times by making sacrifices and changing our schedules, but it seems like stupid people are determined to foil our plans. The NFL is stubbornly refusing to take the necessary precautions to play football during a pandemic. I believe they have gotten lucky, and it is just a matter of time until shit hits the fan. Some things are certainly out of their control, but they could also greatly increase their chances of the season going smoothly by just trying a little harder. Not that I have the answers to all the world’s problems, but my best advice is just don’t be unnecessarily stupid. America finally took a step in that direction with last week’s election. Let’s keep this momentum of average-intelligence decisions going; it’s new for this country, but doesn’t have to be short-lived.