Is football a good idea in the midst of a pandemic?
First things first. We’re all fans. We all WANT football to be back. We the fans want it. Most of the players want it. The owners and media want it. But is it really worth the risk to bring back the game that poses the greatest risk for transmission among the players and team personnel? It’s tricky at best, which is why we’ve heard precious little from the league or the teams over the course of the summer.
The NFL has had the luxury of a months-long “wait and see” approach to the pandemic, as opposed to the NBA, WNBA, MLB and NHL, all of which had to make drastic alterations to the schedule in an attempt to play even abbreviated and altered seasons in 2020. But time is running out for football to makes some changes before the season to keep people safe. Some are arguing that now would be a great time to reconsider what the NFL season should look like: Check out this thoughtful piece by SI’s Mitch Goldich.
Goldich made some excellent points. Reducing the schedule by half and having two weeks between games seems like a no-brainer. Multiple nights per week also fills a need. But travelling on the day of the game? Won’t work. Daytime or night games, it makes no difference. Anyone who’s ever tried to hit the gym or tried to go for an easy run after an extended plane trip will tell you that the human body simply doesn’t operate at anything approximating 100% until the next day, regardless of the length of the flight. The odds would sway way too far towards the home team to maintain competitive balance. But aside from that, Mitch is probably on to something.
When we talk about moderating the risk of transmission, we hear a lot about the concept of a “bubble” that theoretically protects players and staff by keeping them more or less isolated on a trip, but here’s the thing.
While the much smaller teams of the NBA and WNBA seem to be having success in their all-inclusive bubbles, baseball is becoming a travelling nightmare show, with case clusters coming faster than we can report them.
Now, close your eyes and picture a baseball field.
Can you imagine a better sport for maintaining social distance? Nine guys spread all over the field, with tons of space in between, except for the compressed space between the hitter and catcher, and brief moments as plays happen along the base paths.
Baseball should be the perfect sport for these times. But it’s just not playing out that way.
Now picture a football field as the opposing teams line up pre-snap and the play starts. It’s essentially a what-not-to-do for Covid-19. Stand close to people, then run directly at them, face first. You just can’t restrict a fifty-three-man roster tightly enough before they leave to know that on game day, as the offensive and defensive lines mash into each other face to face at maximum effort, infections won’t spread like wildfire.
Another not-so-fun fact. MLB active rosters are still only half the size of NFL teams. So, everything that’s happening in baseball is, sorry to say, going to happen in the NFL. Locker room and bus/plane transmission will be rampant. We will almost certainly see dozens upon dozens of positive tests among the players as the seventeen-week season drags on. It’s not just players, though. Dozens of additional personnel are needed on an NFL game day to make it happen. Think refs, coaches, doctors, ball boys/girls, photographers, equipment managers, etc. The list goes on. All of these people, the vast majority of them not earning high six-figure salaries, are all needed to make an NFL game happen.
The official opt-out period ends today (Thursday, August 6th) at 4 PM, and as I write this, over sixty players have chosen to opt out of the 2020 NFL season. That’s more than an entire roster’s worth of players who are electing to stay home and not risk their health and that of their families. Almost every team has at least one opt-out, the exceptions being the Steelers, Chargers and Falcons. Can you blame them? Of course not. Many have small children, or family members with complicating conditions. Their reasons for opting out are theirs alone, and furthermore, they aren’t the issue. And maybe we’re just asking the wrong questions here.
Instead of asking “How can we make the NFL season safer?”, maybe we should be wondering why we’re treating professional sports like essential and emergency services. Yes, the return of professional sports does give Americans a thin veneer of normalcy as we navigate one of the most chaotic years on record. Which is nice. But do we NEED to see football? As our country struggles mightily to produce anything resembling a coordinated effort to reduce the carnage of this pandemic, is the distraction and entertainment of professional sports worth the risks?
We watch sports to see some of the greatest traits of humanity on display. Dedication, strength, courage, teamwork. But now, in this moment, as we try to stem the tide of a virus that we haven’t yet reckoned with, wouldn’t it be better to show some other important human traits? How about humility, wisdom, empathy and solidarity.
As a guy who gets paid to write about the NFL, I’m loath to say this, but maybe, just maybe the NFL should consider just sitting this season out as an example to our country that safety really should come first.
For more thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.
Image Source: AP Images