Inside the NFL’s Coronavirus Crisis

During a typical NFL season, a clash between two undefeated teams would be a consequential viewing for any avid football fan. Stadiums would be filled with fans cheering at the top of their lungs in support of their teams.

Unfortunately, this season has been anything but normal. The Tennessee Titans faced the Buffalo Bills in front of an empty stadium on a Tuesday night—the first Tuesday-night game in a decade, and only the second occurrence since 1946. Except, unlike in the other instances, this game was not moved because of weather conditions, but rather due to a major team-wide outbreak of the coronavirus disease. Two dozen people from the Titans organization tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the team to close down their facility at the end of September and postpone two of their games. 

The Tennessee Titans’ Outbreak

While the Titans did manage to get a blowout win over the Bills despite not being allowed to play for 26 days, the large outbreak that the team faced brought to light the fact that some players might not have been complying with the protocol. Following two weeks of investigations by the NFL and NFLPA, investigators are still not sure what exactly led to this sudden outbreak of the virus. The Titans organization did face criticism over mask compliance in addition to various coaches from other teams. Titans General Manager Jon Robinson responded to the scrutiny honestly, saying that the team had been “fairly compliant.” 
“To say that we’re 100 percent [compliant] would be a false statement,” Robinson said. He hopes that what they’ve learned from this event can be used to help avoid another outbreak and prevent this from happening to another team.
Tennessee was also facing a lot of heat because some players, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill, had apparently gathered for an in-person workout when the league told the team to self-isolate.

“You can’t sit around on the couch for a week and be on a Zoom meeting and expect to go be at a physical peak on a Sunday, or whenever the game is going to be,” said Tannehill on the alleged violations.

The Tennessee Titans proceeded to play the Houston Texans on Oct 18, 2020, and remain undefeated. Photo by Ed Schipul.

The Effects of the NFL’s Scheduling Shake-Ups

The fact of the matter is, numerous postponements of games leave players unprepared for their following match because not enough time is left for the teams to practice. One team is able to prepare for the game, while the other is expected to play with a week or more of no practice. Plus, postponing one game creates a domino effect that impacts multiple teams. For example, Week 5’s Broncos vs. Patriots postponement led to schedule revisions for eight games, affecting a total of seven teams. Eventually, there will come a point where there will be no more wiggle room left.

This “going with the flow” last-minute method for dealing with the pandemic is taxing for players, and also dangerous. To squeeze in the Chiefs-Patriots game on October 5, the league bent its own rules and put exposed Patriots players on two planes in order for them to play their Monday-night game without their quarterback (who had tested positive for COVID).

This irresponsible decision led Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty to question the league’s intentions. 

“I think outside of here, the people that don’t have to walk in our building — whether it is the league office, whether it is the NFLPA — they don’t care,” McCourty said. “For them, it is not about our best interest, or our health and safety, it is about, ‘What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good, looks good, and how can we go out there and play games?’” 

The Bubble Approach

The NFL attempted to navigate this scheduling mess as the NBA began wrapping up their season, the final three months completed using their flawless bubble approach. Essentially, every single game from July 31 to the playoffs in October was held at a single site, known as the NBA bubble.

It isn’t entirely fair to compare the two leagues’ approaches to the COVID crisis due to the vast differences between them. It would be impossible for the NFL to use a bubble of the same exact manner as the NBA because NFL rosters are roughly three times the size of NBA rosters and the staffs are also much bigger. In addition, the NFL would have to pull off the bubble method for a full season rather than just three months, and they also cannot play as often as the NBA needed to.

No fans are present at the majority of the NFL games this season.

Though an NBA-style bubble was not a realistic possibility, the NFL did have other options. These include multiple bubbles (similar to the NHL) and market bubbles (teams living in hotels in their home cities). 

The NFL’s Plan

The NFL had approximately a five-month grace period to work out a plan to prevent endangering players and personnel and ultimately decided to face the virus head-on using a non-bubble approach, following strict protocols. This plan worked for the first couple of weeks of the season but seems as if it is beginning to fall apart. Chief medical officer of the NFL Allen Sills has repeatedly stated in the past that positive cases were expected; the key to maintaining this non-bubble approach would simply be to remain adaptable. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell corroborated this idea mid-October, stressing that “flexibility is going to be critical.” While a bubble approach in the playoffs is currently off the table, adding an extra week to the season remains in play as a last resort option.
 What eventually becomes of the season remains to be seen. Thankfully, the NFL has begun to take steps and measures to compensate for what it didn’t do earlier. There are now stricter mask rules in place, and players will now be tested on game days. Hopefully, the league will be able to bounce back from this rocky start soon and return to some form of normalcy.

Seattle Seahawks vs San Francisco 49ers (before the pandemic). Photo by Philip Robertson.


Titans GM Jon Robinson admits that not everyone on team is wearing a mask

Tennessee Titans players held workout at Nashville school with team facility closed

N.F.L. Tuesday? Virus Pushed Bills-Titans to an Odd Day

NFL open to delaying Super Bowl, opposed to playoff bubble to deal with COVID-19

NFL COVID-19 outbreak – Can the league really get through the 2020 season? What we know about new positive coronavirus tests

The NFL’s scheduling puzzle

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