Perhaps the most overused, contentious, and misunderstood word in the age of Covid is the term “Optics.” That’s because the concept of optics infers you’re trying to present a reality that’s somehow different from the truth. Like, you might drive a rental Mercedes to a high school reunion that belies your actual financial situation. In most cases, it’s assumed that optics are fairly synonymous with lying.
That seems to be an inference right now with the NFL, which has survived two weeks of regular season games without the potential catastrophe doomsayers had predicted. By all accounts, the League has created something of a moving bubble around it’s 32 teams, with only a handful of positive test cases – and hardly any players. Where baseball seemed to limp out of the gate, the NFL started at a full cantor, with high hopes it can continue through a full season and playoffs. And yes, it’s a lot easier to play 16 games than 60, but professional football seems to be succeeding despite a whole lot of conjecture that it couldn’t.
And to be clear, the NFL wants you, the viewer, to know that. To know that they are taking every human precaution to make sure players and coaches are as safe as possible, even in a sport where each play requires 22 large grown men to get as close to each other as the laws of physics allow. Which means conventions like an electronic whistle and only one person per team for the coin toss and national anthem singers coming in via Zoom. And, of particular note recently, is that all coaches will wear masks on the sidelines during games. Players don’t have to, at least not unless the state requires. But coaches and staff, yes. That, by all accounts, is what we call optics.
Unfortunately, a few head coaches seemed to forget that mandate the first two weeks, roaming the sidelines either without a mask or one hanging below their chin. That includes a Monday night game between New Orleans and Las Vegas, where both Sean Peyton and John Gruden showed their smiling faces to a national TV audience. That cost them each 100 grand personally and their respective teams $250,000, fines paid to the NFL for non-compliance. All told, the NFL has collected some $1.7 million dollars for offenses. And it’s only week two.
Of course, this has led more than a few critics to suggest that this tough love is nothing more than a show. It’s not keeping anyone any safer, especially compared to the relative risk of playing the sport in the first place. It is, as they say, nothing but optics, designed to make viewers believe the NFL is trying to keep everyone safe. Which, I suppose may be true.
That said, I’ll present a different scenario, one you’ve already see at a range of college football games this fall. It’s one with lots of fans in the stands way too close to each other. Where masks are rarer than a shirtless fan with a painted chest. Whether it’s Southern Miss or Florida State, places where the student sections look way too much like a MAGA rally. Things that make us believe that holding college football games may not be as safe as we’d like, and certainly doesn’t instill faith that campus leaders care all that much about keeping the virus at bay. That’s optics as well, even if, sadly, it might be fairly authentic.
In some ways, that’s what televised sport has become in the age of Covid. Not simply a much needed diversion – and at least for me, I do need it. Except for last second playoff wins for the Lakers, I could do without that. But sport is also a symbolic representation of how perhaps we should act right now. For some, the mere sight of athletes playing without masks is a bridge too far – even if they’re tested daily. Perhaps conversely, the sight of coaches wearing masks might be an equally powerful message, particularly to the broad swath of America that seems to still believe they don’t work. Perhaps in that regard, optics isn’t inherently evil, but perhaps just another tool of persuasion in the war against the virus – or at least our attitudes and behaviors. And if that either too cynical or not cynical enough, so be it.
Now, should these teams and coaches have been fined now millions of dollars for their transgressions? That seems a bit much, even though they had been warned. And as we all know, the NFL doesn’t like to look soft on people who break the rules. That, as they say, would simply be bad optics.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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