The NFL is taking the coronavirus seriously. Are the teams? Why this week was a wake-up call

  • Joined ESPN in 2011
  • New Jersey native and author of two published novels

The Tennessee Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak is not the end of the NFL’s 2020 season. It is the beginning of the most important part of it.

This week’s developments are shocking only to those who’d settled comfortably into the familiar rhythms of football season and forgotten the potentially impossible circumstances under which this one is being played. The NFL knew this was coming — a week in which the coronavirus infected one of its teams to the point where it had to consider postponing a game. It knows it’ll happen again. The NFL isn’t in charge of whether and in what order its games get played this season. The virus is. So the league will adjust the best it can, even if the solutions aren’t perfect or universally satisfactory.

But equity concerns aren’t as worrisome as existential ones, which is why this week has to be a wake-up call — a reminder to those who may have forgotten what’s going on in the wider world that there’s no way to shield the ever-insular NFL from it. As smoothly as training camp and the first few weeks of the season went, this is no time to relax, and that time isn’t coming soon.

“Our job simply isn’t done. It’s to remain vigilant,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in an interview Thursday on CNN. “But I’m happy with what’s been done, I’m happy with the protocols that have been in place, and we’ll find out exactly what happened.”

Far more important than the rescheduling of the Week 4 game between the Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers is that the NFL and the NFLPA stay on top of the outbreak in Tennessee. The league issued a memo Thursday reminding teams “There is one simple rule to remember: act as if every person you come into contact with has a COVID infection and take appropriate protocols.” The memo establishes new rules for teams, like the Titans, that have outbreaks, or the Minnesota Vikings, who come into contact with teams that have outbreaks. These include increased testing, mask and glove requirements during practice and virtual-only meetings among other things.

They continue to test Titans players and personnel daily, isolate those who test positive — five players and six personnel members tested positive this week — and trace their close contacts to try to monitor and prevent further spread. They continue to test the players and personnel of the Vikings, who played the Titans on Sunday. So far no one has tested positive in Minnesota, and if that continues for another day or two the league can start to feel confident it wasn’t transmitted from team to team during a game.

But the NFL and the NFLPA have to find out how the virus got into the Titans’ building. They have to make sure everyone else in the league knows what they find out. They have to take some sort of disciplinary action if — if! — they find out it was the result of someone’s negligence. And while they’re at it, they might want to do something about the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Raiders are under league investigation for letting an unauthorized individual into their locker room after a game. Coach Jon Gruden was fined $100,000 and the team $250,000 for Gruden’s insufficient use of league-mandated face covering on the sideline during a game. (Four other coaches and teams have been fined as well for the same violations.) And then this week, video surfaced of Raiders players attending an indoor charity event and mingling and posing for pictures with guests while not wearing masks.

Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr can give all the news conferences they want about how they’ve “done a good job” and they “weren’t trying to be careless and reckless,” but actions speak louder than words. The Raiders’ actions are not those of a team taking this thing seriously, and the fact that they’re flying under the radar is not a good thing for the NFL’s chances of getting a full season played.

What Carr, Jason Witten, Darren Waller and the other Raiders who were at that event did was incredibly stupid. The coronavirus protocols negotiated between the NFL and the NFLPA permit the team (but not the league) to fine them for it. What makes their actions even dumber is that those same protocols allow their team, should they contract COVID-19 as a result of attending a prohibited event (this one violated state and local regulations, and the country club that hosted it has been fined by the state), to classify their illness as a non-football injury. If a player is on the non-football injury list, his team doesn’t have to pay him.

Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. Hopefully, the chickens of the Raiders’ careless stupidity don’t come home to roost. But until we’ve seen five-to-seven days of negative tests in Vegas, we have to count this week’s Buffalo Bills-Raiders game as potentially in peril along with Vikings-Houston Texans. If a Titans player transmitted the virus to a Vikings player during last week’s game, or if an unmasked guest at Waller’s charity event transmitted it to an unmasked Raider, then we could be looking at three postponed games this week instead of just the one.

“I don’t want to say it is what it is, but that is why the plan was put in place to have guys, to be prepared and why so many people … are being diligent and not going out and being reckless and being careful,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “I’m home-schooling my kids. We’re not having guests over at the house. You have to do those things if you want to play the games on Sunday.”

This is the the point the NFL has been trying to drive home — and get its coaches to drive home — for the past couple of months. This whole thing is a powder keg. I heard Carr stand up there and say “we had a few moments where we slipped up,” and all that tells me is that the guy either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. One moment where you slip up is enough to let the virus in. Major League Baseball found this out during a Miami Marlins outbreak in August that infected 18 players and threw the schedules of several teams into chaos for weeks.

There are people in our society who don’t buy any of this — who think the virus is a hoax or overblown. So it stands to reason that there are going to be people in the NFL who think the same way. There are surely players and coaches and front-office people who roll their eyes at the protocols and the constant reminders that they have to follow them. And no matter how seriously anyone is taking the virus, everybody wishes they could snap their fingers and just get back to normal. But the NFL’s position, built on a mountain of advice from the medical community, is that it can’t. The league has worked hard to make sure its players, coaches and other personnel act in a way that respects that position. Coaches who don’t wear masks during games will continue to be fined, and this week the league has told them they also could end up suspended or docked draft picks if the fines don’t work. If that doesn’t get their attention, it’s hard to imagine what will.

So yes, the NFL and the NFLPA will conduct their inquiry into what happened in Tennessee. If the result of that inquiry is the discovery of a hole in the testing and tracing protocols, they’ll work to patch it. Does that mean testing on gameday mornings, currently the only day of the week on which the NFL is not testing? It could. Does it mean the next time a coach’s test comes back positive on a Saturday morning, as Titans outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen’s did last week, that his close contacts can’t get on the plane either? Got to at least consider it. The situation is without precedent, which means the COVID protocols must be malleable.

But as reliable and effective as the protocols have been at identifying cases and limiting spread, there’s no way to get them to 100% effective. There will be more cases. There will be more outbreaks, facility closures, game postponements. It is inevitable. The key to pulling off this NFL season is the behavior of the people on the ground. The ability of players, coaches and team personnel to make the personal sacrifices necessary to keep the virus away as much as possible. And if players and coaches are starting to let their guard down, the NFL has to loudly, publicly and strenuously make sure they get it back up.

We won’t know whether the NFL can complete this season until it has. The external challenges are and will remain significant. They might prove impossible to overcome. But failure to stamp out internal challenges will only make things more difficult. This week has been a reminder that those exist, and that they must be kept to a minimum if this football season is to succeed.

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