League should have COVID compliance officers with each team

NFL: SEP 17 Seahawks at Bears
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The abrupt announcement that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss today’s game against the Lions due to COVID serves as a reminder that the situation isn’t going away for the NFL, or for anyone else, any time soon. The return of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for today’s game against the Seahawks serves as a reminder that the team and the league grossly failed to enforce protocols that were blatantly, deliberately, and repeatedly violated.

Indeed, if Rodgers hadn’t tested positive 11 days ago, he’d still be secretly unvaccinated — and he’d still be blatantly, deliberately, and repeatedly violating COVID protocols, without intervention by the league or the team.

The NFL slapped player and team on the wrist due in part to the fact that it was asleep at the switch, ignoring the phenomenon of unvaccinated players (including Rodgers and others) not wearing masks and otherwise relying on teams to enforce the protocols. As illustrated by the Packers-Rodgers situation, however, the teams can’t be relied upon to consistently enforce the protocols. And even though the league contends that it’s for the teams to ensure that the protocols are followed, the plain language of the documents gives the league the authority to discipline players.

And so the league, if it’s serious about the COVID protocols, should be enforcing the protocols. For any team with unvaccinated players, the league should assign someone to enforce the protocols at the team level, and to pull the trigger on any discipline.

On one hand, it won’t be cheap; on the other hand, the NFL is. That’s what often keeps the league from spending the money that needs to be spent in order to ensure that situations are handled properly. Whether it’s officiating or COVID protocols or anything else that requires the league to make a proactive investment to ensure that whatever the league wants in theory becomes reality in practice, the NFL consistently chooses the path of least financial resistance.

That’s precisely what happened here. The league created protocols that require aggressive enforcement at the team level. In Green Bay (and possibly elsewhere), enforcement didn’t happen. The league failed to notice or to care, until the Rodgers positive result forced the league to pay attention.

And even with that obvious failure of the Packers, likely other teams, and the NFL to turn the words of the COVID protocol into meaningful action, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently crowed to Bob Costas that the NFL isn’t getting enough praise for its handling of the pandemic.

“I’m really proud of what our league, what our coaches, our players have done in general about having protocols that have limited the COVID,” Jones said in an interview on HBO’s Back on the Record with Bob Costas. “I think we’ve got a great track record. Matter of fact, I think it’s one of the untold things that we probably ought to talk about is what the sport of the NFL is doing in light of leadership in COVID.”

That leadership, as we’ve learned, has real flaws. And it’s just another piece of evidence to support the notion that, while the game itself is great, the current stewards of the sport often leave something to be desired. In fact, the greatness of the game itself provides even more cover for the problems with the management of the game, because there’s always a bright, shiny object that will distract from cosmetic blemishes that periodically threaten to become structural flaws.

Today, there are 12 bright, shiny objects. Enjoy them all. Until an officiating blunder or some other fixable problem causes your favorite team to lose, or your best legal wager of the week to fail.