‘Wednesday Afternoon’ Football? NFL vs. COVID

December 3, 2020

Compiled by Breven Miller, Griffin Olah, Pershelle Rohrer and Dr. Nancy Spencer, with contributions by Malik Devese

Late Show's Wednesday Night Thursday Night Football Promo | cbs8.com

At the beginning of the NFL season, there were concerns about “whether a close-contact sport like football, with 22 players on the field and dozens more on the sidelines along with coaches and trainers, could avoid a coronavirus outbreak” (Belson, 2020, para. 1). As of mid-November, there was no spread on the field although players tested positive for contacts that occurred off the field (at restaurants, via car rides and/or through people not associated with football such as nannies) (Belson, 2020). The NFL’s approach to dealing with Covid differed greatly from those taken by other professional sports leagues that resumed earlier in the summer (e.g., the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and NHL).

The first professional league to return was the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) which “completed a virus-free month-long tournament inside a Utah bubble” (Keh, 2020, para. 3). Major League Soccer (MLS) played in an enclosed environment in Florida, but initially lost two teams due to positive tests (Keh, 2020). The NBA and WNBA both completed successful seasons in a bubble at Walt Disney World where champions were crowned in both leagues – the L.A. Lakers in the NBA and the Seattle Storm in the WNBA. Meanwhile, the NHL returned to play in two different bubbles in Canada, with the Tampa Bay Lightning capturing the 2020 Stanley Cup (Keh, 2020). Since logistics prevented Major League Baseball from playing in a bubble, teams met at a limited number of ballparks and managed to complete an abbreviated season with the L.A. Dodgers winning the World Series. 

Although the NFL had the most time to prepare for its season, they seemed to squander that time by delaying their implementation of safety protocols that other leagues had put in place. As Kevin Clark tweeted, “The NFL was the only pro league with the luxury of time and they wasted it” (“How the NFL’s,” 2020, para. 6). Unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, which “all had their protocols approved a week before camps opened,” the NFL did not approve their protocols until the day some players began to report (“How the NFL’s,” 2020, para. 8).   

ESPN’s Dan Graziano (2020) reported that until mid-November, 28 of 32 teams operated under strict protocols due to a member of the organization or a member of a recent opponent testing positive for COVID-19. Sixteen teams operated under intensive protocols multiple times. For those teams, there was a greater than 50 percent reduction in close contacts, helping reduce spread and increase contact tracing (Graziano, 2020). Yet, several teams received hefty fines for violating protocols. The Raiders were fined $500,000 when 10 players attended a large gathering without masks and the Titans were fined $350,000 for their lax handling of enforcement (Belson, 2020).

While the NFL had originally put guidelines in place, they recently instituted more intensive protocols due to the rising spread of COVID-19 around the country (Graziano, 2020). Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the league emphasizing the importance of flexibility throughout the season. As Goodell wrote, “it has been said many times that our 2020 season cannot be ‘normal’ because nothing about this year is normal. Flexibility and adaptability have been critical to our success to date and we must continue with that approach” (Graziano, 2020, para. 3).

On November 17, the Dallas Cowboys established a bubble for all staff that have direct contact with the players at the Omni Hotel attached to Cowboys headquarters in Frisco, Texas (Walker, 2020). The decision came out of the team’s game with the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend, where tight end Vance McDonald played before later receiving a positive test. In addition to that, Andy Dalton and Tyrone Crawford were added to the COVID-19 list recently after being exposed to the illness, which is the team’s first contact with the disease since star tailback Ezekiel Elliot tested positive during training camp (Walker, 2020). Jerry Jones said that the team is creating a bubble out of caution as to not throw the rest of the league’s schedule off more than it already has (Walker, 2020). There are questions about the team’s commitment to lowering COVID-19 numbers, however, since Jones followed that up with bragging about attendance numbers. He did point out the usage of pods and limited attendance as keys to his “continued aggressive approach” (Walker, 2020, para. 9).

Despite efforts to curtail the spread, the NFL lost “its marquee matchup on Thanksgiving” when the game between the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers and the 6-4 Baltimore Ravens was postponed until Sunday (Kim & Lev, 2020, para. 9). The Monday before they were to play, the Ravens had announced that “multiple members of the organization tested positive for coronavirus” and those who tested positive were in self-quarantine as the team began contact tracing (Kim & Lev, 2020, para. 4). The postponement marked the second time the Steelers had to adjust their schedule since their game against the Tennessee Titans also had to be postponed due to players testing positive. The Steelers’ receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster expressed his frustration in the following tweet:

Two days later, the Steelers learned of yet another postponement as their game was moved back to 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesday, provided that no more Ravens players tested positive (Bumbaca & Jones, 2020). In addition to the postponement, “the Ravens disciplined strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders for failing to report coronavirus symptoms and not consistently wearing his mask or tracking device while inside the facility” (Bumbaca & Jones, 2020, para. 4). So much for not having spread within teams’ facilities!

On Saturday, November 28, CNN medical expert Abdul el Sayed questioned the wisdom of the NFL’s decision to continue scheduling NFL games when so many players had tested positive. Meanwhile, nurses around the country have been questioning why thousands of athletes are able to get tested while they cannot (Babb, 2020). As the NFL season has progressed, one nurse observed the hypocrisy of our nation’s priorities at a time when she and other front-line workers (supposedly, the ‘essential workers’ among us) have not been tested.

At a time when so many have lamented the growing political chasm between the right and the left, perhaps the real divide is between the ‘haves’ (i.e., professional and college athletes) and the ‘have-nots’ (the essential workers who selflessly serve our nation). During the week from November 8-14, “the NFL administered 43,148 tests to 7,856 players, coaches and employees” while “major college programs supply dozens of tests each day” (Babb, 2020, para. 5). Yet, there are still far too many weary health care workers who have been denied access to testing. What does that tell us about our priorities as a nation?

References

Babb, K. (2020, November 27). As thousands of athletes get coronavirus tests, nurses wonder: What about us? The Seattle Times. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/as-thousands-of-athletes-get-coronavirus-tests-nurses-wonder-what-about-us/

Belson, K. (2020, November 13). The N.F.L. has prevented coronavirus on the field. Off it is another matter. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/13/sports/football/covid-nfl-fans-players.html

Graziano, D. (2020, November 18). NFL memo says all NFL teams to operate under intensive COVID-19 protocols. ESPN. https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/30343474/nfl-memo-says-all-nfl-teams-operate-intensive-covid-19-protocols

How the NFL’s return-to-play protocols compare to other pro sports leagues. (2020, July 20). NBC Washington.com. https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/sports/nbcsports/how-the-nfls-return-to-play-protocols-compare-to-other-pro-sports-leagues/2365636/

Keh, A. (2020, July 30). ‘Bubbles’ are working. But how long can sports stay inside? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/sports/basketball/sports-bubble-nba-mlb.html

Kim, A., & Lev, J. (2020, November 25). Ravens-Steelers Thanksgiving matchup postponed due to Covid-19 cases. CNN.com. https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/25/us/ravens-steelers-thanksgiving-postponed-spt-trnd/index.html

Smith-Schuster, J [@TeamJuJu]. (2020, November 25). First the NFL takes away our bye week because another team can’t get together their Covid situation together, now they[Tweet}. Twitter. https://twitter.com/TeamJuJu/status/1331658616173051904

Walker, P. (2020, November 18). NFL coronavirus: Cowboys create bubble for staff to help combat COVID-19 for remainder of 2020 season. CBS Sports. https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/nfl-coronavirus-cowboys-create-bubble-for-staff-to-help-combat-covid-19-for-remainder-of-2020-season/

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About The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project

The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project is a hub for teaching, research, and service related to sport media. The Project benefits students and faculty at Bowling Green State University, and offers outreach and media consulting to area and regional groups that work with student-athletes. Through collaborative efforts of the Sport Management program and the School of Media and Communication, BGSU students have the opportunity to learn such skills as sports writing, reporting, broadcasting, announcing, public relations, media relations, communication management and production. Faculty and other scholars have access to resources about the commercial and sociological aspects of sport.

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