Lest anyone think the White House is the only high profile super spreader in the US, I present to you the Tennessee Titans. Like the White House, the Titans have gone from a singular positive test result to now over 20, threatening their ability to conduct the in-person business of playing professional football. I will also add that the similarities between Tennessee and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue pretty much end there, since the Titans have taken a proactive approach to tracing and further preventing the spread of the virus under league mandate. And I never expected that I would hold up the NFL as the exemplar of safety protocols. But here we are.
The Titans aren’t the only football team with a Covid problem. The New England Patriots have gotten positive test results from two of their best players, including starting quarterback Cam Newton, forcing the team to cancel today’s practice and placing this weekend’s game against the Broncos in doubt. And that also means Kansas City, who played New England Monday night and are now the League’s premiere team, are on high alert. That’s where we are four weeks into a regular season that’s starting to feel a bit like Whack a Mole, where teams and games can be shut down in a moment’s notice.
The NFL does seem to be taking the matter seriously, at least as much as feasible in the landscape of professional football played across a national landscape. And they’ve added to the Covid rulebook this week in light of all this, including more travel buses, stricter mask rules, ten feet between people when they eat, and pretty much everything you didn’t see at Amy Barrett’s Rose Garden nomination ceremony. And they are testing with relatively fierce abandon, which is why they’ve caught as much as they have. At the very least, the NFL is not adhering to the ignorance is bliss philosophy adopted by a whole lot of our social institutions.
It would not be unique or perhaps incorrect to suggest that the NFL’s interest in player safety is deeply rooted in economics. A serious Covid outbreak is an existential threat to the 2020 season, as sidelining multiple teams over cascading weeks would push the Super Bowl into around June. So it is clearly in the League’s greatest interest to make any outbreak limited and something of an outlier, with the added benefit that it might also keep people from getting deathly ill.
Given the current state of the Titans and the Patriots and probably other teams in the near future, there will be calls for the NFL to cancel the rest of the season, or at least call something of a hiatus. There will also be more than a few who will lambast the League and its member teams for putting athletes in unnecessary harm’s way, or at least for putting profits over health. Since so much of this goes from a sociological and economic debate into an epidemiological one, I think we often find ourselves way outside our lane. Which for me until about eight months ago rarely veered into anything beyond a cursory knowledge of how airborne diseases spread. So I’m not well positioned to argue whether the League is making the right medical decision or not.
That said, in the end, particularly with these outbreaks, the NFL is trying to do what I think a lot of as aspire to do. Continue to move forward as safely as possible in the age Covid. As we recognize that this virus isn’t a short time visitor but more of a long-term rental situation, we’re all trying to find the balance between reckless abandon and shelter in place – neither of which are particularly healthy, for drastically different reasons. I honestly believe, and probably contrary to a lot of people, that it’s okay – maybe even good that the NFL continues to try and find a safest way forward while still playing games. And it’s not because I’m a huge NFL fan, because to be honest, I’m not. It’s because what we, as a country, need, is a science based approach to keeping the lights on, something our federal government seems wholly unwilling to do. So maybe, just maybe, the NFL offers a pathway forward in admittedly one of the most challenging work environments outside Air Force One. And maybe we all get the reprieve that comes from a few hours a week of carefree entertainment. And hopefully, we see fewer similarities between the White House and the NFL.
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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