The Detroit Lions have played a home game on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1934.
It’s time for that streak to end.
With coronavirus spiking across the United States, and the holiday looming as an inflection point for things to get even worse as people travel, students return from hotspot campuses and families hold gatherings, the NFL has an opportunity to send a clear message to the country that everything is not okay, and normal traditions cannot proceed as usual by canceling its full slate of games on the holiday. That would be Texans at Lions, Football Team at Cowboys, and Ravens at Steelers.
Everyone knows, though, that given the choice between doing the right thing and making money, the NFL will secure the bag every time. So, it’s up to local authorities to weigh the situations in their own jurisdictions and figure out how to proceed.
Detroit is the iconic home of the NFL on Thanksgiving, and the Lions are the one team out of the three holiday hosts that has not been allowing fans at its games. That might make it seem like calling off the Detroit game is the least urgent of the three, but it’s Detroit that has the most reason to pull the plug on the NFL this Thanksgiving, and the greatest gain to be made from doing so.
For one thing, if the Lions aren’t allowed to play at Ford Field, there won’t be a backlash of ticket-holders angered at having their holiday plans upended. When the people who would argue “you’re restricting our choice as adults to take this risk” out of the equation, it not only makes the political calculus easier, it allows for the reality of the situation to gain that much clearer of a focus.
It’s ludicrous, of course, that pandemic response is so politicized, but it is. The Cowboys play in Tarrant County, Texas, where local leadership is starting to wise up but state leadership is all in on stupid, while the Lions and Steelers play in Democratic cities within Democratic counties within Democratic states with Democratic governors. With the Steelers having fans in the stands (many from surrounding Republican-leaning areas), the chance for controversy over a postponement is much higher than in Detroit.
But if there aren’t fans in Detroit, why is it so important for the city, for Wayne County, and for Michigan, to get together and pull the plug on the Lions? It’s because having an NFL game isn’t just a matter of players showing up and tossing a ball around for a few hours. There are stadium electricians, television production crews, and a variety of public employees who need to be part of making the game happen.
A Wayne County spokesman told Deadspin that county sheriff’s deputies are part of Lions gamedays this season, while the city of Detroit is responsible for having EMTs on hand. And that’s where the importance of not playing a Lions-Texans game on Thanksgiving in Detroit becomes clear.
Michigan had 2,686 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 510 of those in what the state calls Region 2 South — the City of Detroit and Monroe, Washtenaw, and Wayne Counties. The Henry Ford Health System is at 78.1 percent bed occupancy, the Detroit Medical Center is at 80.2 percent, and Ascension is at 83.8 percent, all outpacing the statewide hospital bed occupancy rate of 74 percent. What might things look like in another two weeks, as there’s no sign that the spread of the virus is doing anything but worsen?
In New York this spring, the sound of ambulance sirens was nearly nonstop, a constant reminder of just how serious the situation was, and how much of a burden was on EMTs and other first responders. How, in the middle of a situation on a direct path toward that, can the city of Detroit justify keeping an EMT crew on hand so that a multibillion-dollar league can fulfill its television contract and provide three hours of opiate to the masses? When it’s all hands on deck, it’s not all hands on deck except the couple of folks playing poker in the back. It’s all hands on deck.
To play a football game in this situation, even with no fans in the building, is to put lives in danger. Lions-Texans is the most non-essential of non-essential businesses that the state of Michigan could ever ask for. In an outright emergency, diverting public employees from that emergency so that Matthew Stafford can throw a pick-six on national television is beyond irresponsible.
Knowing how the NFL operates, they would happily move the game to Texas, where Greg Abbott and his squad of science-denying goons would more than happily accept it. Detroit can’t do anything about that. What Detroit can do is tell the NFL that, as is the case for so many families, coronavirus means that the Thanksgiving traditions we all know and love simply cannot happen as usual this year.
Update, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, at 11:30 a.m.: The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued the following statement to Deadspin on the matter.
“MDHHS is monitoring the rising COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations with concern. The Michigan Public Health Code, as passed by the Legislature, gives the department director broad authority to take actions via emergency order to protect the public health during an epidemic, which includes prohibiting the gathering of people and other procedures during an epidemic to insure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws. The Public Health Code also provides certain authorities to local health departments to take actions as well.
“We continue to urge all Michiganders to do their part to help slow the spread of the virus in our state, including wearing a mask, physically distancing by six feet from others not in your household, washing your hands often and staying home if you are ill.”
The department also has guidelines for holiday celebrations.