This is an idea that will be as polarizing as everything else has been and will continue to be about the pandemic. Given the NFL’s current protocols — which in many respects make no sense — it’s an idea that will keep more players on the field with minimal risk that the virus will spread.
Here it is. Asymptomatic players who are positive for COVID should be allowed to play.
Yep, I said it. There’s no evidence that the virus spreads during games. And for good reason. They’re either outdoors or operating in domes with sky-high ceilings and state-of-the-art ventilation. Also, their face-to-face encounters are quick and fleeting. They don’t have enough time and confinement for sufficient amounts of virus to pass from one player to another.
We know that in part because, through nearly two full regular seasons and the 2020 postseason, there’s no evidence that teams with COVID outbreaks gave COVID to opposing players during games. And there definitely have been positive players playing in games.
Especially this year. The NFL’s vaccination incentive, as developed jointly with the NFL Players Association, dangled the promise of less frequent testing for those who get jabbed. Originally, vaccinated players would be tested once every 14 days. Now, they’re tested once per week.
And so some players, like Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr., got their once-per-week test the day after a game, and (as with Beckham) they’re positive. Does anything think he wasn’t positive the night before he tested positive?
Two weeks ago, Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt had an uncharacteristically quiet game against the Bengals. The next day, he tested positive. By Friday, the virus had exited his system. It’s reasonable to think that he had it and either didn’t realize it or thought it was a cold or whatever and fought through it. Some symptoms can easily be concealed or downplayed by players who are determined to slip through the cracks and earn their money by playing the sport they love.
So, yes, every week players are playing in games with COVID. This week especially, with so many players testing positive on Monday, players with COVID definitely played in games. Given what we know about the spread of the virus, there’s no reason to arbitrarily prevent players who are COVID positive and unaffected by it from playing in games, because there’s no reason to think it is transmitted during games.
The protections would be more relevant in the locker room and via the manner in which the player is transported to the game site. That could get tricky, with a private plane having a hermetically sealed cockpit being the only responsible way to get a player to a road game not in driving distance.
Regardless, as the pandemic becomes endemic to the population, this issue isn’t about to go away. The league has coexisted with the cold and the flu for decades. Although this specific illness, as evidenced by 800,000 deaths in the United States alone, can be much, much worse than conditions to which we’ve become accustomed, it continues to not affect many people who get it. Why should those people, if they are NFL players, be prevented from playing?
It’s a question that the league and union must ask themselves immediately, and that they must answer as quickly as they can. Perhaps just in time to avoid having key players who are positive for the virus but healthy enough to play miss postseason games that start next month.