The NFL’s Pandemic Strategy Is to Ignore the Pandemic

You might not be seeing any of this for a while. Photo: David Eulitt/Getty Images

From the beginning of the coronavirus’s takeover of American life, one national institution has gotten away with basically pretending that nothing out of the ordinary is happening: The NFL. Largely because of the timing of COVID-19’s arrival on our shores — just after football season ended — the NFL has been able to keep its calendar intact in a way that no other American sports league can. (The league can even claim a strange sort of pandemic win; some experts believe a coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco may have been avoided thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl comeback.) The free agent season came and went, with Tom Brady’s exodus from New England serving as a stimulus package for a starved sports-chatter industry. The NFL Draft, one of the few sports-related events that can safely proceed at the moment, is set to begin this Thursday evening, running through Sunday. And next month, the league will release its 2020 schedule, right on time. It will look the same as always: Home games, road games, Thanksgiving games, Monday Night Football, all of it. In the NFL, everything is seemingly on track.

As willfully denialist as all this is, I will confess that, as a sports fan whose entire life has been dictated by the predictability of the sports calendar, I find it comforting— even soothing. In March, my Arizona Cardinals pulled off a heist of a trade with the Houston Texans, bringing in all-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and I’ve been fantasizing about an offense featuring Kyler Murray, Hopkins, and innovative head coach Kliff Kingsbury ever since. I have zero evidence that there will actually be games for them to play by September, but the NFL has done nothing to discourage me from believing, in the face of all reason, that there will. This week’s draft is an annual advertisement for the future, a future that very much may not exist. That will not stop any NFL fan from watching. It certainly won’t stop me.

But the clock, and the depressingly dysfunctional way this country has dealt with this crisis, will catch up with everyone eventually. The draft may be happening on time, but it’s also the first sign for the NFL that the outside world is creeping in around the edges. Originally set to be a massive production in Las Vegas, the draft will now be done virtually, which worked well for the WNBA’s event on Friday (though it’s not difficult to imagine the lunkheads in NFL war rooms having trouble with the setup). And while the regular-season schedule will look standard when it’s announced, the Washington Post reported last week that there are contingencies being built in for the possibility that the season will not start on time, or that games will go forward without fans, possibly at neutral, cordoned-off venues. As usual, the NFL is pretending that everything is fine. But the mask is starting to slip.

The NFL has as much to lose as any professional sports outfit if games don’t come back this year. No league has benefited more from television networks’ reliance on live sports programming. The league has contracts with CBS, FOX, ESPN, NBC, DirectTV, Yahoo, and Facebook that bring in more than $5 billion a year — contracts that, by the way, it was looking to renegotiate after ratings rose last year. But those contracts are of course reliant on there being actual games to broadcast. If you take the games away, it not only destroys the NFL’s revenue, it decimates the entire sports and television industry, which has become increasingly reliant on live sports, and football particularly. The three top-rated shows of 2019, and four of the top five (the other was the Oscars), were NFL games. The NFL needs those games to happen, and it needs to signal to the networks that the games will happen. Sure, it can probably weather a financial hit better than other leagues; it makes the most money, after all. But the NFL’s dominance means that the entire system is built around it, and its presumed ability to mint money forever. The entire system breaks down if this is no longer true.

Over the last week, there have been quietly positive signs that sports could return, in some form, as early as this year. Dr. Anthony Fauci said “there’s a way” to play games in 2020, even tossing out the idea that Major League Baseball could return by July 4. The idea of sports coming back is one of the few issues President Trump seems to devote any real energy to, discussing the topic with major commissioners twice in two weeks.

This is where the NFL’s everything-is-just-fine! posture comes in handy, thanks largely once again to matters of timing. The other leagues — MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA, MLS, college sports — are on a much tighter timeline than the NFL. The NBA and NHL are running out of weeks to finish up their 2019–20 seasons; Major League Baseball is dropping more than a dozen games every day; the MLS has already lost a third of its season. If those leagues are going to salvage their seasons, not to mention make good on their own television contracts, they’ll have to figure something out before the NFL does, and perhaps take risks that the NFL will be able to watch and assess accordingly. One source in the Post story actually admits, “the other leagues have to go first.” If MLB rushes back with a plan that blows up in its face, the NFL can go a different way; if the plan works, the NFL can follow suit. The league is running out of time, but it still has more of that commodity than others do. It can sit back and wait.

But there’s still a lot of peril ahead for Roger Goodell and co., arguably even more so than for its competitors. Maybe baseball can figure out its Arizona plan and maybe it can’t; maybe the NBA can close out its season and maybe it can’t. But there is reason to believe that baseball and basketball can be played in America soon. There are encouraging signs elsewhere: the Chinese Professional Baseball League is conducting games without fans — but, oddly, with mascots — as is Taiwan’s Super Basketball League. (You can watch these games live, and I very much recommend it.) But baseball and basketball are both less physical, and require far fewer players, than football does. Is the NFL really going to be able to figure out a way to get teams of 50-plus roster slots, plus the hundreds of off-field personnel and television crews necessary, in place to play 16 games every weekend? MLB can use Arizona baseball fields; the NBA can find a gym anywhere. You got 16 full-size football fields able to handle an NFL television crew handy? Can you have them ready by training camp?

Given the massive challenge involved, the NFL’s denialism is beginning to take on the air of magical thinking. What’s the league’s current plan for how its games will take place, exactly? According to the Post story, here it is:

[T]he NFL hopes that widespread testing for the virus will be available by the fall for players and perhaps fans, and suspects that public health advisories will be issued that will, for example, urge older and other at-risk fans to remain at home.

Yes, me too. I also hope that Christopher Nolan’s new movie will still come out this summer, and that my kid’s overnight camp isn’t canceled, and that I’ll be able to download a vaccine off the internet by mid-July. The NFL’s Super Bowl trophy is named after Packers coaching legend Vince Lombardi, who is oft-credited with the saying “Hope is not a strategy.” But right now, that seems to be what the NFL is going with.

It’s still possible that this will all work out. Certainly, during the draft this weekend, the NFL will act as if it will. I’ll watch the draft on Thursday, and play make believe like everybody else. But I’m not sure this is the kind of “escapism” sports is supposed to provide. And I’m not sure how the inescapable American institution that is the NFL will handle things if, and when, reality comes crashing down.

The NFL’s Pandemic Strategy Is to Ignore the Pandemic