Opinion: Diversity is critical for NFL in devising COVID-19 strategies

No offense if you’re plenty familiar with the impact of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson but don’t have a clue about Herman Taylor or James Hildreth.


Taylor and Hildreth are superstars in their own right, among more than two dozen outside medical experts tapped by the NFL and NFL Players Association for the extensive brainstorming on plans and protocols for trying to play pro football during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And they happen to be Black. Why is that important?

Just chew on the patterns. According to the COVID-19 Racial Data Tracking Project, in conjunction with the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, Black people are dying of the disease at 2 ½ times the rate of white people and constitute 22% of deaths in cases where race is known.

Meanwhile, more than 70% of NFL players are Black.

While experts insist that the virus is indiscriminate in affecting people across all demographics, the NFL can’t ignore the cultural trends. Hildreth and Taylor bring extensive track records that would seemingly provide tremendous awareness of the health challenges in the Black community because they are dealing with them directly.

During an interview with USA TODAY Sports, Hildreth said, “The pandemic has put a bright light on the fact that if you’re Black in the United States, your chances of getting sick from (COVID-19) and dying are much higher than anyone else’s.”

Hildreth, an infectious disease expert, is president of Nashville's Meharry Medical College, which has traditionally ranked with Howard University Medical Center as the top producers of African-American physicians. He doesn’t go as far as suggesting that Black NFL players are generally more susceptible than white counterparts of being stricken severely by COVID-19. He maintains that a person’s immune system typically determines the outcome of viral infections and that the systems of elite athletes have been fine-tuned for years – although underlying medical conditions certainly represent a key factor.

The bigger concern, Hildreth said, underscores what some players have expressed in deciding to opt out of the upcoming season: the risk of contracting the virus and spreading it to family members who may have heightened risk factors, many of which disproportionately affect African-Americans.

“Players have opted out for that reason,” said Hildreth. “They’re not so much worried about themselves as they are their families. I have tremendous respect for them, for making that decision.”

Taylor, meanwhile, was brought to the table by the NFLPA after union chief DeMaurice Smith instructed medical director Thom Mayer to put together a panel of experts as the crisis unfolded during the spring.

“These are some serious, bad-ass scientists,” Mayer told USA TODAY Sports, referring to the nine committee members who have collaborated with experts assembled by NFL medical chief Allen Sills.

The research into COVID-19, including the impact on African-Americans, is obviously in the early stages. And opinions vary. Although officials from the NFL and NFLPA point to a cooperative spirit in addressing COVID-19 concerns, Mayer said the union sought a “broader approach” than the NFL had with its team physicians and trainers. The union also has had to address myths that de-emphasize the risk to players, he said.

“Things are changing with regard to our understanding of a virus that this planet has never seen before,” said Mayer, whose background includes commanding the emergency response at the Pentagon following the 9/11 attacks. “Therefore, we have to stay open to what the science tells us.”

The data is being unpacked continually, Mayer added, alluding to articles that examine long-term, cardiovascular, pulmonary and neurological effects of COVID-19.

Yes, the education is ongoing on many levels. And that includes what appears to be a deeper level of diversity being sought by the NFL in trying to deal with the pandemic.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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