On Tuesday we learned the Tennessee Titans had six players and personnel who have tested positive for COVID-19. Since then that number has ballooned to 8, then 14, and now is closer to 20.
After hemming and hawing over how to handle the Titans game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL finally decided to postpone the game and rearrange bye weeks later in the season to get that game in. It’s probably not totally fair to the Steelers, who have practiced all week and are essentially losing their BYE in the traditional sense.
This is all well and good, and a decent way to handle the situation, if I’m honest. The NFL has been getting strict with teams, going as far as handing out fines to coaches who don’t wear masks on the sidelines and threatening to dock draft picks if it continues. They have made the rules a bit fluid, and have updated regulations as they learn more. That’s great. It’s adapting to a tough situation.
Tennessee was simply the first domino to fall.
After learning of the Titans, news broke later in the week that the Las Vegas Raiders had attended a charity event that took place indoors, at which players were not wearing masks. While Derek Carr tries to explain away the pictures as being just a moment they took their masks off, the optics aren’t great.
And those optics are getting worse today as we’ve learned that New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton has tested positive. Initially, it looked like Cam would be out and the game would go on. Then news hit that Kansas City Chiefs practice squad QB Jordan Ta’amu has also tested positive. No official word has been released just yet as to how the league will handle the game, but we do know that it will not play at 4:25 eastern time as expected.
This all leads to a very important question.
Is it time to shut it down?
Don’t @ me. Let’s shut it down for two weeks. If you think about contact tracing, this has spread pretty widely already, even though we have fewer than 20 confirmed positives across the league. How, you ask? Well, let’s get into it.
NFL rules right now prevent away teams from leaving their hotels when they’re traveling for games and not practicing or playing. However home teams are able to go home to their families. Their families who, depending on the state, could see children going to school and spouses/partners going to work. So who knows what’s being brought back home, then subsequently to the teams during workouts, practices, and film. But we could cast this net super wide and it will always be unknown.
If we narrow our focus a bit to the teams themselves, not taking family into account, it’s still hard to wrap my head around how this won’t spiral out of control quickly.
The Titans played the Vikings, who seemingly have no positives and are traveling to Houston to play the Texans. The Patriots played the Raiders last weekend. Cam is positive and the Las Vegas players attended a pretty packed indoor event without always wearing their masks. Vegas plays Buffalo this week. Kansas City has a practice squad QB who is positive and practiced all week as Cam Newton against the starting Chiefs defense. KC played Baltimore on Monday night, and Baltimore is traveling the short distance down 95 to take on Washington this week.
Without knowing for sure where things stand, eight teams could potentially be affected. That’s a quarter of the league right there. And we’re not even taking into account extended personnel, their families, and the extent this could grow.
It’s no longer a question for me. It’s time to shut it down.
The NFL needs to take control, and they need to do it swiftly. Super Bowl LV is set to be played February 7th, as of now, in Tampa, Florida. The league has given enough of a cushion to allow the game to be played a month later, in March. And they should exercise that option.
Shut things down for two weeks. Send everyone home. Continue to test daily, and have all players and staff self-isolate. Sure, this may mean a team of medical staff needs to travel to everyone’s homes daily in order to test, but it’s a necessity. Nip this in the bud now.
Instead of figuring out how the pieces fit into a different puzzle as one-off postponements inevitably continue to happen, start everyone at 0.
I know a bubble won’t happen, because the owners are cheap. But they need to create a bubble for all the teams. Sorry guys, no more going home to your families for the duration of the season after you’ve quarantined for two weeks. Limit contact with non-team affiliated people. It sucks, I get it. But it’s necessary if you want to keep playing the game. It works. The other four leagues who have played during the pandemic have made that sacrifice. If the NFL can’t, they shouldn’t be playing.
Suck it up and stop allowing fans. We’re going into a time in which we expected an increase in positive cases, so it’s a bad time to play a game of Risk. Sure, the fans and players are never close enough to potential infect each other, but we need to mitigate all potential risk. Period.
If the NFL can manage to make these changes, and get on top of things now, we may actually be able to see a full season play out. If they don’t take it as seriously as they should, we may never see a week five or six.
Responsible leadership isn’t just mandating sideline masks and doling out fines. It’s also standing up to make the difficult decisions to drive necessary change for the health and safety of everyone affiliated with the league. Lead by example. Don’t get caught with your pants down.