After cancellations, widespread illness, empty stadiums across the league (and, perhaps more alarming, some stadiums that weren’t empty), continued frustration that the league still hasn’t owned up to its blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, and the general economic sports depression of the last 12 months, it is worth giving the NFL a little bit of credit: It has successfully gotten through the season. Maybe this is something that should make the league more ashamed than proud. But it’s a fact nonetheless.
There were many, many reasons to wonder whether the NFL could pull this off. Major League Baseball’s struggles to complete its 60-game season were well-documented (most notably, there were weeks-long “COVID pauses” for the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins), but MLB held two major advantages over the NFL: The league plays every day, which allowed it to add doubleheaders to cram in every scheduled game, and baseball doesn’t involve competitors breathing heavily right in their opponents’ faces for hours on end, ceasing only to drive those opponents’ skulls into the dirt. The NFL ran into the same issues as MLB, but without the wiggle room. At one point, two teams were forced to play on a Wednesday — and it’s still not entirely clear that game should have happened from a public-health perspective. Unlike MLB (which went two un-bubbled months without a positive test), the NFL was never quite able to get a handle on COVID, with teams isolating and players quarantining well into the postseason.
Yet here it is, with just one game left on its schedule — the game — in two weeks. And now that the matchup is set, it’s safe to conclude that things have worked out pretty damn well for the NFL — as tends to be the case. The Super Bowl is going to feature the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, probably the best player in the NFL and an emerging face of the league both on and off the field, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, of course, Tom Brady, probably the greatest football player of all time and certainly the most polarizing. It’s the past of the NFL against the future, the two most recognizable names in the sport facing off in front of the entire world. Either Brady — playing, absurdly, in his tenth Super Bowl — will add to his legend, or Mahomes will continue his unprecedented construction of his own. It’s the easiest thing to sell in sports: veteran against upstart, hero versus villain, player you love versus player you hate. They couldn’t have asked for a better matchup if they’d constructed it themselves.
I wouldn’t put it past them, either. The NFL was willing to pull whatever strings it had to to keep the season going. While the league’s top doctor says there was no evidence of on-field transmission, and its contact-tracing program seems to back that up, questions remain about how the NFL was reporting and reacting to positive test cases. (Though the league’s contact tracing was so good that the CDC even praised it.) Defector’s Kelsey McKinney discovered that the league was disproportionately holding back news of positive tests on Sundays in order to make sure games weren’t canceled; observers became used to a dump of positive tests on Mondays, the day after the full schedule of games. It was also bizarre to see, as was the case with the Ravens, multiple positive tests within a team every day leading up to a scheduled game … and then the game being played anyway. The No. 1 priority for the NFL was making sure their schedule played out the way they (and, more important, their television partners) wanted it to, and player safety was … well, somewhere below No. 1.
This willingness, almost obsessiveness, with making sure the NFL’s television partners were made whole could be the primary reason the NFL made it through. The league can survive without many fans in the stands because most of its revenue comes from television contracts; in many ways, fans have long been less valued as paying consumers than as background extras existing solely for television ambience. The empty and semi-empty stadiums may have felt strange, but for the NFL, the real money comes from home viewership anyway. As long as they stayed on schedule and built everything up to the February 7 Super Bowl date that has been locked in for years, the season would be deemed a success. NFL ratings were down this year, but not dramatically. And, correctly or not, many in sports are hopeful that the dip is temporary and can be chalked up mostly to the pandemic (every other sport saw declines, too). And for what it’s worth, there aren’t many in the NFL executive suites who, for however much some of them might have agreed with him philosophically or enjoyed his tax cuts, don’t feel relieved that Donald Trump isn’t around to turn their league into a political ping-pong ball it desperately doesn’t want to be.
For the NFL, the goal was simply to make it through this year. And that’s why it’s so remarkable not just that they pulled it off, but that this is the matchup they ended up with. In two weeks, the NFL will show off its two most marketable and recognizable players, in its showcase game, with tens of thousands of fans in the stands (thanks, Florida), without having to worry about a tweet from the leader of the free world telling its owners to yank those kneeling “sons-a-bitches off the field.” It will almost look like … normal. The NFL might not have made the most prudent, safest decisions during the pandemic. But they did the one thing they had to do: Muddle through. And now they’ve been rewarded handsomely.