Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

How The NFL Could Exploit A Plague To Tighten Its Death Grip On Sports

The NFL is the one league that wasn’t in the middle of a season or in training camp when the coronavirus epidemic hit. And that’s mostly true worldwide, with soccer, rugby, the Olympics, tennis, golf, cricket, and however many others feeling the freeze. The NFL still gets to sit back and observe how it will all play out. Its free agency basically went off uninterrupted, and while there has been some mild moaning about draft preparation, that will still go ahead and generate a ton of interest.

In fact, once again the NFL has seen the floor basically yielded to it. Free agency and the draft, however and whenever it goes ahead, will take place in a sports vacuum, which will only create more interest, and more salivating for the league to kick off in the fall.

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No matter what happens, the NFL wins. It is inevitable.

And let’s face it, the NFL is perhaps the only league on these shores that’s “Too Big To Fail”. “Too Big To Stop,”to be more accurate. The NHL, NBA, and MLB could see their seasons wiped away completely (and likely should), but can you envision a scenario where the NFL would? With all that money involved? And all the interested and influential parties?

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Is Roger Goodell really the type to stand against the tide of the ultra-wealthy owners who employ him? We’ve already seen the answer to that. And Jerry Jones, who runs the league in reality, almost certainly will suggest finger guns as a measure against Covid-19 before telling everyone to kiss his ass.

No other entity is used as a symbol of American exceptionalism more than the NFL, except maybe our military being used unnecessarily. And no league likes to stand for that more than the NFL, despite what desperate-for-romance baseball writers want to tell you with their stories about Ted Williams that they weren’t even alive for.

You can easily see the Trump administration using the NFL as an indicator of a “return to normalcy” as well as a badge of his own triumph in “overcoming” the virus, when he will have done quite the opposite. Which is funny, because Trump has never hesitated to use the NFL as his punching bag when it served him, whipping up drool from his supporters’ agaped mouths. But as we are all too sadly familiar with, logic, reasoning, and consistency abandoned the White House long ago.

The TV networks will still be desperate for more programming, as the production halt will have stopped providing new shows by then. And the league will not want to have to return any of the aircraft carriers full of cash they get from the networks. We all know how this goes.

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So how will the NFL manipulate rules and regulations set by the states and, perhaps one day, the actual federal government? It’s hard to predict while knowing that it will happen. If the WWE can get an “essential business” label, you can bet your ass the NFL will, too, somewhere. Governors might Three-Stooges Syndrome themselves into trying to give it to the league.

Fans in the seats or not, the machine must continue
Fans in the seats or not, the machine must continue
Photo: Getty
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Training camp is the easiest to foresee. Even though it’ll be anathema to your true football thinkers (they’re the guys who use “football” three times in a sentence while holding a football), they’ll take a cue from soccer, and more specifically German soccer. Bundesliga teams have returned to training in “shifts.” That is, smaller groups of players train/practice together, then leave, the facility is basically scrubbed, and then the next group of players comes in. Players change and shower at home, so there’s minimal use of common spaces.

This might sound a little drastic, but you should bet good money this is something NFL teams will adopt if needed. Most have training camp at their own practice facilities now, anyway, and certainly all of those facilities are built for it. Players already live in close proximity. Depending on what size groups are allowed by the time late July rolls around, it’s not hard to fathom teams rolling in groups of 22 players or so for drills, alongside coaches and trainers, before swapping in the next group a half an hour after the previous group leaves. And if you’re wondering if this wouldn’t make for extremely long days for coaches, it’s important to remember that this is a group of people known for boasting of 16-hour days, and sleeping in the office, and forgetting their daughter’s name, if they can even remember they have one. They’ll lap this shit up.

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Problems would arise from the fringe players invited to camp, those not currently under contract, but they’d likely be sequestered at a nearby hotel in some fashion, or room with other players in their practice group. It’s not enough of an obstacle to keep the NFL from doing this, that’s for sure.

It’s likely that preseason games would have to be banged, or reduced to one in September, depending on where we are with the outbreak. Absolutely no one is going to complain about this, except for owners, who’ll use it as an excuse to cut back on some group’s salary. Some vulnerable group, to be sure.

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The regular season is the real challenge. Any plan couldn’t be considered until rapid-result testing is available, just as it is for any other league. The “bio-dome” plans we’ve seen floated from the other three major sports, i.e. every team being quarantined/sequestered in one location for all games, is even more unworkable for football. Each team brings one or two hundred personnel with them, and it’s hard to see how to reduce that. This doesn’t mean the NFL couldn’t try to make the argument, with it being based on the fact that they only play once a week, will leave after their game, and whatever workers indirectly affected by games being played — hotel workers, stadium staff, TV production — could cycle out and back home afterward. If the testing is up to par by then, anyone testing positive could be quarantined.

It sounds incredibly stupid and dangerous, but only just slightly more stupid and dangerous than what other leagues have let escape their vision boards. And this is the NFL, which has more money than just about anyone in the country to pull off dangerous, stupid stunts over reasonable objections.

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The league is already weighing empty stadiums and short seasons. Or you might even hear of the NFL trying to “stagger” games if they’re restricted to just one location, perhaps four games each Friday-Monday. Any locale will have to have enough pro and/or college stadiums to do this behind closed doors. Again, to any right mind, it’s patently naive to think the NFL won’t float this as a trial balloon.

Another option the NFL might consider is sequestering teams in their home cities, and then flying them as normal on chartered planes to play in the scheduled locations with no fans. Collectively, this would still involve as much hotel space and workforce as the first plan, just spread out around the country, those 16 traveling teams needing just one night when on the road. Again, with the break between games, the NFL could argue all workers could be tested and cycled out as needed, instead of the monthslong state of captivity these workers would have faced under MLB’s Arizona hostage situation.

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This would be harder to pull off given the state-to-state policies and restrictions that will continue through the summer and fall, but one the NFL will almost certainly seek some special dispensation to get around.

Of course, this being the NFL, they may be allowed to just operate as normal and there’s little anyone can do about it as killing people is just seen as the price to pay to have football return. And there’s more than enough fans who would agree with that sentiment. Remember this when you see tailgates going in Tuscaloosa and Austin and Baton Rouge even if there are no college games.

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Look in your heart, you know it to be true.

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