The NFL has a major benefit in being the last major American sport to return in the COVID-infected world. The league has been able to observe the relative successes of the NBA and NHL bubbles, the struggles of Major League Baseball, and the well-functioning soccer leagues across the pond that have managed full seasons in countries that have been more effective than the U.S. at controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The NFL has seemingly learned very little, and this is troubling. Football has a few key differences that work in the league’s favor, including fewer games and more time off in between them, but there are many additional factors that make it a much higher-risk sport than baseball. The NFL needs to be very creative if they want to play a full season, and so far they seem to be following baseball’s model of hoping for the best. There is a way forward, but to realize it, they need to accept the risks they face.
Football’s Enormous Challenge
1. The Second Wave
We’ve lost sight of the idea of a second wave because the first wave really never ended. To refresh everyone on what a second wave of Covid actually means, back in March and April many expected the spread of Covid to taper off over the summer as people moved activities outdoors. The second wave was the hypothesized spike after cooler weather returned and people were forced back indoors. Instead, the first wave really never tapered off due to attempts to prematurely reopen society and the politicization of masks. That said, there is no reason to believe that a fall spike will not occur. The logic behind the idea is still sound, and just because you did not get a summer reprieve does not mean there cannot and will not be a spike in the fall and winter.
2. Close Proximity
All football plays start with five to 10 men lined up directly across from each other, well within the six-foot range recommended for effective social distancing. Some are literally breathing directly into each other’s faces. Complicating matters, most plays end with one player hugging another. Baseball has the benefit of not having players in close proximity for the vast majority of the game, which contributed to the league’s decision to eschew a bubble situation. On-field spread will be an issue, and if the NFL doesn’t adopt a bubble strategy like the NBA or NHL, every game will be dangerous — more so than it already is.
3. The Size of NFL Athletes
I do not mean to imply that offensive and defensive lineman are anything other than outstanding athletes. I am well aware Gilbert Brown was crazy fast for a 340-pound person, and that all NFL players rank among the world’s finest physical specimens. All of that said, linemen are not normally shaped people, and there is a good reason that many of them immediately slim down once they retire from the league. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Covid-19 has the potential for severe cardiovascular effects in addition to being a respiratory disease, and it is at least possible that it may impact NFL players more severely than your more normal sized athletes. It ha already taken a severe toll on at least one major league pitcher, and if NFL players suddenly start developing severe symptoms, it will take the league a long time to recover.
4. The Size of NFL Teams
The NBA bubble is proving to be a stroke of genius, but it works in part because NBA teams and organizations are small. It’s relatively simple to keep tabs on 15 to 20 people in a secure location where contact with the outside world is limited. Contrast that with baseball and their 30-man rosters plus staff and coaches. For baseball and football this is a simple math problem. It only takes one person becoming infected to bring the disease back to the whole team — or at least a substantial chunk of it, as the Cardinals and Marlins recently found out. The more players there are on a team, the bigger the impact from a single infected teammate.
The contagious nature of the disease is not in doubt. Every player has a family, friends, entourages, etc., and some will be tempted to go out and do risky things with those people. As that number goes up, the odds of infection go up with it. Football teams are even larger than baseball teams, even with reduced roster limits for the 2020 season.
With size also comes a higher probability that there is are people on the team who take the disease less seriously than is warranted. Former players like Aubrey Huff have been vocal skeptics of masks and other safety protocols (to say the least), and while he receives plenty of warranted criticism, it’s clear he also has plenty of supporters. It only takes one Aubrey Huff on your team to ruin it for everyone, and more players per team means there will be a greater chance of a few teammates of similar mind. Some teams already have their Huff-like members revealing themselves.
What To Do?
This is all quite daunting. To truly minimize the likelihood of a coronavirus outbreak, the NFL has two options and, thus far, neither seem to be on the table despite high-profile players and coaches like Doug Pederson contracting the virus. If they proceed with their current status quo, they are doomed from the start, but if they can regroup and realize what’s happened to the other leagues, they might be able to save the season.
1. The Bubble
The most obvious solution is the bubble. The NBA and NHL bubbles seem to be doing the trick, and as all of these sports put their athletes in close contact while in play, it’s imperative that they go to extremes off the court. It’s hard to imagine football without close contact and heavy breathing. Super-spreader events tend to feature singing or other forms of strong exhalation, and even outdoors spreading the disease will be easy.
A bubble would solve, or at least mitigate, most on-field risk by keeping the players clean. Moreover, because football can be played in almost any kind of weather outside of extreme heat, there are many options on where to set up bubbles. Creating an in-division and extra-divisional set of games split between the first and second halves would seem to be an ideal solution. And finding domed stadiums to host, or at least, ideal weather, would be simple, help to limit travel, and restrict the ecosystem of player movement.
Unfortunately, the NFL doesn’t seem inclined to do this. They haven’t even given up on having fans in the stands, leaving it up to individual teams and states. Adding the additional risk of near-weekly travel for a full football roster is ridiculous when we’ve seen the bubble in action. Holding out hope for fans in the stands is more ridiculous still, and frankly, it is a pipe dream. The league has made a half-hearted showing of safety protocols and high-tech contract tracing, but all of their good intentions still rely on 26-year-olds behaving like responsible men with 100% compliance. It’s a fantasy, and it’s nonsense.
2. Vaccines and PR
There are now several vaccine candidates in Stage 3 trials. It is possible, though not nearly certain, that one will be safe, effective, and available before the end of the year. The “available” part is the real kicker, as it takes time to make several billion of anything, no matter how important it is, and early doses surely will (and should) go to front-line medical workers and first responders. If I were the NFL, I would delay the season while making some overtures to a few of the more promising vaccine manufacturers. I would offer them financial support to ramp up manufacturing in exchange for immediate doses for my players. This would have the result of getting players vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is approved (perhaps as early as October), while not taking vaccines out of circulation for the general populace and in fact speeding up their manufacture due to a generous but entirely self-serving donation.
This has several additional benefits over the bubble idea. First, it would come bundled with great news for society as a whole. A successful vaccine instantly brings hope of a return to normalcy, and the NFL can be the symbol of that return: a group that actively helped bring it about by partnering with a pharma company. While fans are a pipe dream if the league starts on time in a bubble scenario, it’s entirely possible fans could be back in the second half of a delayed season once vaccine manufacturing starts to allow for the general populace to get vaccinated.
There’s also a sense, even with the NBA, that maybe sports should not be played at all. Given baseball’s many failures, there’s a small amount of guilt that comes from watching players put their health on the line to play through a pandemic. The NFL has some of that already due to its violent nature, but if they can push the season into the post-vaccine world, a lot of that goes away.
There is much to be gained from this strategy, and all along, what football was waiting for was the potential to outlast the pandemic. They still might be able to do so if they play their cards right. The big risk is that none of the initial vaccine candidates pan out and the league misses the season entirely. While that’s bad, it’s also better than a number of possible scenarios should they have to cancel a season halfway through, or after a few games.
The number of players opting out of the season continues to grow in size and profile, and it will be interesting to see what happens if a star quarterback joins the list. There are several players, including Davante Adams, who risk a lot by not opting out. There is so much that can go wrong if they follow the established plan. They either need to get more cautious with the bubble, or go big and bold by planning around vaccines. Anything else is the worst of all worlds.