As the pandemic continues to surge through the country, and as some in politics and media continue to pooh-pooh it all, the NFL is in the early stages of what will be a significant experiment regarding the operation of a full-contact sports league without a hardened, league-wide bubble.
Given the raw numbers of players and coaches and other essential staff, and coupled with the extent to which the virus has permeated much of the country (including many of the communities in which NFL teams operate), the NFL should be braced for the inevitability that someone — a player, a coach, an assistant coach, or a staff member — will die of COVID-19.
As one head coach explained it to PFT on Thursday, consultations with various doctors not connected to the NFL have led to the inescapable conclusion that, given the total amount of players, coaches, and staff and the prevalence of the virus, one or more people working for one of the league’s teams likely will die from COVID-19 during the 2020 season.
Of course, this could happen even without football season moving forward. If the season were scrapped, it’s highly unlikely that all players and coaches and staff would revert to self-isolation and never become infected. They’d exit their homes and interact with others and potentially contract the virus doing things unrelated to football, possibly becoming ill or dying from it. The sheer size of football operations and the extent of the national outbreak point to, eventually, the death of someone employed by an NFL team.
That nuance will be lost if/when a player, coach, or staff member dies during football season. It will be presumed by some that the death traces to the fact that football season proceeded. And teams are concerned that the league office is poised to shift the blame, from a legal or P.R. perspective or both, onto the clubs for failing to properly implement the protocols. The argument, direct or implicit, overt or subtle, will be simple: If the teams had properly implemented the protocols, this wouldn’t have happened.
The truth is that will be impossible to prove, in part because (as one source put it) the protocols arguably have more to do with optics than with keeping players, coaches, and staff from catching the virus.
The question, beyond one or more human tragedies like those that have played out more than 150,000 times since March, then will become whether that will shut down football season. One one hand, all it took was a single positive test on March 11 in the NBA to shut down basketball, hockey, baseball, everything. On the other hand, when Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died of heatstroke on August 1, 2001, the NFL kept on going.
It’s an uncomfortable topic but it’s one about which the league, teams, media, and fans need to be thinking, and for which all need to be bracing. Although most people who contract COVID-19 suffer at worst mild symptoms, it has killed many people. The NFL’s desire to push forward with the 2020 season necessarily entails the kind of risk that, multiplied by the volume of people who work for the league’s teams, should be expected to result in one or more very bad outcomes.