This NFL season is as sturdy as a house of cards. No amount of theater, from the low camera angles that cloak a lack of fans to the laugh track of fake cheering that pretends they are still there, can hide the truth.
The pandemic continues.
Three Titans players and five staffers had confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the NFL announced on Tuesday. Another player learned of his diagnosis Wednesday morning. This was after Titans linebackers coach Shane Bowen tested positive last Saturday. The players were not tested on Sunday, when they played at Minnesota.
Both teams have suspended in-person team activities, and are testing players and staff daily.
And now, the NFL has to decide if the goal is to play the games as they exist on the NFL schedule, or to reduce the risk to the men who will play them by keeping the Titans off the field on Sunday.
This isn’t season-ending. But the way the NFL manages this moment will be very telling.
Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at the Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta, has been watching leagues try to manage bubbles and outbreaks. Major League Baseball, which, like the NFL, tests frequently but is not in a bubble, dealt with a few outbreaks early on but delayed games and mitigated the risk.
The baseball season continues, but there have been casualties. Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez’s covid ended his season and left him with heart inflammation.
Testing players every day doesn’t magically shorten an incubation period that could easily be seven days. We saw this with the St. Louis Cardinals, when a few days without a positive test gave the league a false sense of security before more positives were detected.
But football is not baseball for a few reasons.
Getting COVID-19 means very different things. For some people, it is a silent passenger, and for others a terrible flu or worse it can require weeks in the hospital hooked up to a ventilator. Those who die often have pre-existing conditions, and one of those is a large body mass index.
Like an NFL lineman.
NFL teams, by virtue of the game’s design, require those big bodies to stop up the middle of the field in order to protect the quarterback. According to Binney, it is particularly difficult to ventilate a body like that. It’s one of the reasons that the NFL has an obligation to be more careful than other professional leagues.
“These guys aren’t invincible, and you’d be more concerned with someone who is bigger,” Binney said. “Even though they’re athletes, their bigger size makes it harder to deal with respiratory issues.”
The other is that football is a contact sport, and games can be long even if plays are short. And this, said Binney, is where the Vikings are actually serving as a test case.
“The NFL has run an inadvertent experiment on how easily the virus will be spread on the field,” Binney said.
The question is whether the Vikings, who played against the Titans last Sunday will return any positive cases. In this experiment, the last exposure for the Vikings would have been Sunday, so theoretically if there are no positive tests among players or staff, they could play again this weekend, according to Binney.
For the Titans, however, with nine positive cases since last Saturday and likely in-team transmission, playing Sunday is probably a day too soon according to Binney.
“There is a very real chance they could not test positive and be infectious on the field Sunday,” Binney said. “It would be risky.”
So this season is about managing those risks. And on Friday, the NFL could have more data that explains just how easy, or difficult, it is to transmit this virus during a game.
NFL players and personnel will get the virus. Eagles coach Doug Pederson and Chargers coach Anthony Lynn already had and recovered from the virus. This question is not binary — play or don’t play. It’s how. It’s about the flexibility of maneuvering in a unique and more dangerous environment.
Most epidemiologists are predicting that a second wave of the virus will arrive in fall as the weather cools, and that is being borne out as nationally the daily case numbers rise. With 205,000 people already dead from this virus, it’s not just about the players on the field. Some predictive models estimate more than 300,000 Americans will die from this by the end of the year, as people move indoors to avoid the cold.
Fans shouldn’t be in the stands, particularly indoors, says Binney. And the NFL was absolutely right to fine coaches for shoddy mask wearing. The least the league can do if we’ve somehow decided this is a societal priority is to model good public health behavior. The absolute least, and frankly we aren’t asking enough.
Last week in Pittsburgh they buried Jamain Stephens, a 20-year-old college defensive tackle who died from a pulmonary embolism, a clotting issue which is one of the ways the coronavirus attacks the body. The New York Times wrote this story from the funeral.
They won’t all be fine. The NFL — and its fans — can’t afford to pretend.