Keith Strudler: Are You Ready For Some Football?
Are you ready for some football? Normally that’s a hypothetical asked by an overly enthusiastic broadcaster to get frothy sports fans ready for the next game. But in this case, it’s actually a real question, like, are you actually ready to watch the sport of football in the era of Covid-19. Or in some cases, are you ready to play football where face masks are replaced with, well, facemasks, and giving anyone six feet of distance is a guaranteed way to get put on the bench.
These are the questions confronting a bunch of American sports organizations right now. And none with higher stakes than the NFL, the 800-pound gorilla of American professional sports whose season hangs in balance of the upcoming days and weeks. After a fairly chaotic summer, the league is scheduled to open play next Thursday night when the Texans play the Chiefs, followed by a full slate of games on Sunday the 13th. The plan is for teams to complete a 16-game season followed by playoff games, culminating with the Super Bowl in February in Tampa, Florida. That’s assuming we get that far, or that the season isn’t delayed or split in half. If we’ve learned nothing else so far during this crisis, we’ve learned that everything is at best in pencil.
For the most part, NFL games will be played like most other sporting events so far during Covid – without live fans. In some ways, it’s fairly natural for a league that’s been tailored as a TV first property for years. The NFL, unlike basketball and hockey, will not play in a bubble or any kind of virus free living environment. Teams have worked to make their practice environments as safe as possible, and I’d suggest safer than most other places opening in this country, and there’s a pretty strict testing protocol for players and athletes. So at the very least, the league is doing the best they can to keep the train rolling. Whether that’s because they care about player safety or league finances is likely a question of perspective and your level of cynicism. But either way, I’d imagine that barring placing the entire league in a giant, city sized bubble, this is probably their best shot to make it work. Meaning the NFL will try to limit their life threating risk to severe head trauma and CTE, like the good old days.
It’s not a stretch to say that there is a lot riding on whether or not the League plays and plays successfully. It’s also not wrong to suggest that there’s people who vehemently disagree on whether they should try in the first place. And it’s also worth noting that the success or failure of this venture will be used as a political tool during this agonizing final run to the presidential election. And add to that the fact that the League and its athletes will likely take a demonstrative stand for racial and social justice, something that will likely vary based on the tenor of race relations in the country at large. So anyone expecting an NFL season free of activism should probably prepare to be disappointed – and to be honest, should probably wake up to the reality of a broken nation.
Not being an epidemiologist, I have no idea if the season will make it through to a logical and relatively safe conclusion. I suppose theoretically, at some point, athletes might get a vaccine to make it easier. And I’m fairly convinced that whether you like it or not, starting NFL quarterbacks will be put in the same priority list as first responders. I do believe that barring a Covid disaster, which is very much still in play, the NFL will do everything in its power to keep on keeping on. Which might mean a few players out here and there, and maybe even a team in quarantine. But unless there’s a UNC sized outbreak, I think we’ll see a full, albeit awkward season.
I also happen to think, with all due respect to those that disagree, that this is a good thing. Not because this country is in any way moving in the right direction or because we’ve handled the virus at all, but because right now, I’m not sure how much more collectively this country can take. And perhaps, just perhaps, the opiate of professional football might give us enough to keep moving ahead, at least until election day. Now if that doesn’t go well, then honestly, there’s nothing strong enough – not even the elixir of football – to keep this thing called America together.
Which begs the question, are you ready for some football?
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.