The NFL Is Returning To a Different World. Can It Adapt?

Here it comes. Photo: Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

The biggest surprise of this surreal, absurd, perpetually tumultuous 2020 sports year remains that it has happened at all. As mentioned before in this space, you can make a pretty strong argument that the only American institution that has responded well to COVID-19 pandemic has been the world of sports. The NBA, WNBA, and NHL bubbles have held up splendidly, with no positive tests in months, and Major League Baseball had some early problems but has gotten its COVID-19 issues mostly under control — for a sport whose players are flying across the country and staying in public hotels, that they have had precisely two positive tests over the last two weeks, with more than 26,000 tests done in that time is actually rather remarkable. (At the very least, it’s about 200 times better than what the rest of the country is doing, even as cases are slowly falling nationwide.) The general consensus among journalists and observers was that attempting to mount a sports season in the middle of a pandemic was doomed at best and actively harmful at worst.

But here we are. All of these leagues look they’re going to get their seasons completed, salvaging the television money they so desperately needed and salving their wounds as they reset for whatever awaits them in 2021. In the very early days of this pandemic, I posited that 2020 would likely end up a sort of gap year for sports, an empty page in the sports history books, like when players were gone for World War II, or the 1994 World Series was cancelled because of labor issues. But that hasn’t happened. There are going to be champions crowned in each of these sports. This year is going to count. It is a truly remarkable achievement. They actually appear to have pulled it off.

There is one major sports league, however, whose season has, almost perfectly, evaded COVID-19’s disruption of your regular scheduled programming. It has lost no games that count during this time, it has suffered no serious economic calamity, it has had no serious labor issues. It hasn’t even had any active social activism yet. And it is, in America, the biggest sports league of them all. The NFL is the mega-monolith of all American sports and in many ways, the financial rising tide that raises every other sport in its wake. Now it is its turn to navigate the pandemic.

The last NFL game was played on February 2, 2020, in Miami, about a week and a half after the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States. (It is widely believed among epidemiologists that the 49ers losing in the Super Bowl, preventing a scheduled victory parade in San Francisco at the precise moment when the disease was starting to spread in that city, may have saved thousands of lives.) As we all now are reminded roughly every 20 minutes, everything that happened on February 2, might as well have taken place 50 years ago. The world is a dramatically different place than it was since the NFL last played a game. But now professional football is back — and largely attempting to act like everything is, or at least can be, like it was before this mess started.

Sure, there have been some inevitable nods to the pandemic, from the all-virtual (and oddly compelling) draft in April to the cancellation of all (long-pointless) preseason games, to a testing protocol that has been impressively successful so far. They’re even largely going without fans, at least at first, though that is far from universal: the Dolphins, Jaguars, Browns, Cowboys, Colts and the defending champion Chiefs will all be allowing fans, at reduced capacities, for their home openers. (You can even go to a Jaguars game on Sunday for 30 bucks.) But on the whole, the NFL is the one sports league, because of its resources and its cultural and financial influence, everyone has assumed is going to be handle the pandemic just fine (there are certainly whole television networks that are counting on it). But it is odd that this is accepted as a given. This is a sport, after all, where 11 grown men are not only constantly tackling each other, they’re breathing heavy air into each other’s faces on every single play. In many ways, the challenges the other sports leagues have faced during this pandemic are even more profound and difficult in the NFL. There is a general sense that the NFL is too big to fail, particularly after the other sports leagues have survived. But COVID-19 has put a final lie to the notion of American exceptionalism, and no sports is more prone to that exact fallacy than the ultimate American exceptionalism pastime. The NFL may make it through this season unscathed. But it is going to be so much harder than seems to be the general consensus.

Here are the questions the much-maligned commissioner Roger Goodell is going to have to find the answers to:

How will the testing protocols evolve as the season goes on? (Because they will have to.)

Right now, the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols are incredibly strict and, on the whole, working. Of the thousands of players in the NFL, there are only six of them on the COVID-19 list. The primary reason has been the testing: Players have been tested every single day since training camp began, a practice that will continue during the season. (Players will only not be tested on game days themselves.) But teams have also had the advantage of not traveling during training camp, which will obviously end once the season begins, since there is no bubble, and teams will playing at their home fields. The NFL had the advantage of watching other sports deal with the pandemic and seeing what worked and what didn’t, and their plan most closely resembles Major League Baseball, the other unbubbled major sport. MLB had a major outbreak with the St. Louis Cardinals, but not because the team violated the protocols, but because they obeyed them. The Cardinals, after several players tested positive, waited for three days of consecutive negative tests before attempting to travel as a team, but it turned out that a few players took longer to amass the viral load necessary to test positive, and in those extra days, those players caused another outbreak on the team. MLB has since adjusted those protocols (and instituted more intense contract tracing), but that is the point: Their extremely well-laid plans blew up in their faces less than a week into the season. This is particularly important because of an advantage baseball has over football — its players are not constantly tackling each other and blowing air in each other’s faces. MLB’s major success has come from avoiding transferring COVID-19 from team-to-team; the Marlins had several players unknowingly play a game while infected, but no players from the team they played, the Phillies, ever tested positive. That will be a much harder needle to thread in the NFL.

Another factor is player behavior. The Cleveland Indians suspended two players (and ended up trading one) after they sneaked out of the team hotel to have dinner with friends while on the road in Chicago. That happened less than a month into the baseball season, which is only lasting two months anyway. The NFL is trying to do a normal, regular, 17-week schedule, which means these players will be forced to live under the NFL’s restrictive protocols for four months, with rosters that have more than twice as many players than baseball teams do. It stands to reason that players, over the course of a long season, will become more lax about the protocols. After all, look at yourself: Haven’t you become a little bit more lax, at least about some things, over the last four months? The difference is if you try to cut a Covid corner, you are unlikely to shut down a $15 billion sports league.

What will it take to cancel a game?

Largely because of their inherently reduced resources, college football has dramatically more relaxed protocols than the NFL has, or even, in some cases, no protocols at all. (There appeared to be an outbreak among the Austin Peay football team before its first game last week, but they just went ahead and played anyway.) But even college football is canceling games, including a much-anticipated game between Texas Christian and SMU next weekend, thanks to an outbreak involving TCU. The NFL schedule has zero wiggle room in it, by design: These games are huge earners for television networks, desperately needed live television events, so the incentive is to pack in as many as possible. The NFL’s only real nod in scheduling this season was to have certain weeks with no intradivisional games, in case they have to cancel that whole week. But everyone is incentivized to play every game on the schedule.

So, again: What would it take to cancel a game? The official league protocols on this are more specific about how long a player has to sit out if he tests positive than what happens to the team if he does. Respected epidemiologist and sports injury expert Zachary Binney has noted on Twitter that “if you have three to five players out at any one time for COVID you should assume you have an outbreak and shouldn’t play,” so that would seem a good baseline, but there’s no official league protocol involving a specific number. And as we learned from the St. Louis Cardinals, one positive test doesn’t mean you only have one positive case. If one player tests positive on a Saturday before a game, and he has been spending time in close proximity to teammates all week, how do you know how many positive cases you truly have? And will that lack of knowledge be enough to cancel a game? What if the positive test is two days before? Four days? What if it’s a game that NBC paid hundreds of millions to broadcast on a Sunday night? The NFL will want to take shortcuts to fulfill its television contracts. And we’ve seen what happens when people try to take COVID-19 shortcuts.

Are they seriously going to let teams have fans in the stands?

The NFL has been widely praised for its aggressive testing program and its lack of positive tests, relatively speaking, to the rest of the population. But it continues to take real heat for its allowance of fans in the stands. The NFL has permitted each team, and local municipality, to decide on its own whether fans will be allowed in, which is one of those abdications of responsibility that seems destined to come back and bite them. If there’s an outbreak because of 20,000 fans at a game in Kansas City, the league will get the blame. That the NFL has not put down a universal no-fans-for-the-first-month rule is just asking for trouble. “It’s hard to believe that with opening up the season, even in a limited capacity as they’re planning to do, that we’re not going to see an uptick in cases and it would be tragic,” former White House physician Dr. Jennifer Peña told Yahoo Sports. The amount of money the NFL receives from ticket sales is a small percentage that pales to the revenue from television contracts. Why risk the entire season just to pick up a few stray bucks on the side? 

How will the league handle protests and social justice messaging?

The actual biggest sports story of 2020 has been athletes fighting for social justice, from Bubba Wallace and NASCAR to Black Lives Matter slogans on pitchers mounds to NBA players actually refusing to play a playoff game in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake. It’s fair to say that the recent history of social justice and protesting in the NFL has been nothing but discombobulating to the league: Simply by kneeling before a preseason game, Colin Kaepernick changed the very nature of athlete activism and sent Goodell and his league into years of turbulence, including a very public spat with a president — who will be increasingly desperate to add fuel to his ongoing cultural bonfire. Already, many NFL players have scoffed at the league’s haphazard messaging attempts, including a stenciling of “END RACISM” (but not, notably, “BLACK LIVES MATTER”) in end zones for Week 1, and while Goodell has publicly said the league will “stand with its players” in their fight for racial justice and has apologized for how the league treated kneeling players in the past, this is an issue that Goodell has consistently fumbled, largely because of his fealty to the (almost entirely white and Republican) NFL owners. The NFL is the biggest American sport in a year that has been marked by American sports protests. Every eye will be watching how the league handles them this time.

How will they handle Trump?

Goodell, simply by saying the words “Black Lives Matter” on social media, signified a willingness to no longer cow to Trump’s every whim like in the past. (Likely because Goodell sees the same weakness the rest of us see.) But Trump has had success — at least his own version of success, which is to say, he has turned everyone against one another and gotten us all talking exclusively about him — going to the kneeling-NFL-players culture war before, and in the midst of a desperate re-election battle, you can be sure he’ll go there again the minute he sees any NFL player kneeling or protest of any kind. Will the league ignore him? Does it still fear him? Goodell is never more uncomfortable than when he is in the middle of some sort of political battle. But, well, sorry Roger, that’s what life is right now. Prepare for a big one.

What crisis will pop up that isn’t even COVID-19 related?

The NFL is so massive at this point that it’s essentially always engulfed in crisis no matter what it does. In the last few years, domestic violence, deflated footballs, culturally insensitive mascots, and player safety have threatened to derail any positive stories coming from what’s happening on the field. It’s the NFL: There’s always something. The big story to keep an eye on, I’d wager, is the widespread sexual harassment in the Washington Football Team organization — a story that still hasn’t quite caught widespread traction outside of the world of sports but absolutely has the potential to. (And very much should.) The NFL has an owner in Daniel Snyder who has fostered a dangerously sexist workplace environment, discouraged a thorough investigation of his organization, and reportedly tried to coerce one of the team’s cheerleaders to go to a hotel room with one of his friends and one of the team’s financial investors. And yet he remains not just the team’s owner but entrenched with more power than he’s ever had, and with the implicit approval of Goodell and the league. Maybe it’ll be that story — I hope it’s that story — but there will definitely be something that roils the NFL this year.

Every NFL season brings with it madness and unpredictability and the possibility of everything dissolving into a complete and total shitshow. But no year has more potential for implosion than this season, during a time when the league has more on the line than ever. It’s a combustible mix of countless different factors, a powder keg that could explode at any moment. Which is to say: In 2020, the NFL remains the most truly American sport of all.

The NFL Is Returning To a Different World. Can It Adapt?