Around this time last year, the National Football League was scrambling to figure out how it could schedule 32 teams to play a total of 269 games in the midst of a deadly pandemic. The league decided to face the virus head-on and run through the season with strict protocols, but without a “bubble” approach followed by other sports leagues. Ultimately, this allowed the NFL to complete the entire season from start to finish, but it came at a cost: numerous games needed to be postponed, rosters were upended, and the hectic season concluded with a whopping total of over 700 positive COVID cases.
Through all the chaos, one team managed to pull off a remarkable achievement. In addition to breaking multiple franchise records and acquiring the division title, the Seattle Seahawks defied all odds and finished the 2020 season as the only team unscathed by the coronavirus. The organization was able to do so despite training near Kirkland, Washington, which had become the nation’s first coronavirus hot spot. Additionally, the team had to travel farther throughout the season than any other NFL team.
The director of player health and performance for the Seahawks, Sam Ramsden, was initially skeptical. “I didn’t really imagine the NFL being able to have a full season,” Ramsden said in an interview with the New York Times.
So how did the team do it? Ultimately, it was consistent adherence to health guidelines and strong leadership that allowed all Seahawks players, coaches, and other personnel to push through the season COVID-free.
According to Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist who advised the Seahawks during the coronavirus crisis, “[the team] invented a playbook for a safe practice environment at a time when the future was deeply uncertain.”
In addition to standard protocols that all teams followed, such as the use of upgraded ventilation systems, open windows, and locker room dividers, the Seahawks also took on a few extra precautions that proved to be extremely helpful in the long run. Coaches and staff travelled in seven buses instead of four, players ordered food online instead of waiting in a cafeteria side-by-side, and everyone wore sensors that detected how close in proximity they were to others and for how long.
It also took some unique thinking and initiatives from Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll in order to keep players safe. Carroll had each position group compete for the title of fewest closest contacts (the wide receivers ultimately won). This proved to be an effective implementation of physical distancing that kept the players safe and connected at the same time.
“I realized that we were going to have to create our own bubble,” Carroll told New York Times reporter Ken Bolson. “Everything that one person did, everybody did, if we were together and connected.”
Carroll and Ramsden’s innovative thinking combined with cooperation throughout the organization helped the Seahawks pull through the season safely. Before their final game, against the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs, the nurse practitioners and phlebotomists who administered tests for Seahawks personnel—known as “the Swab Team” among the Seahawks—raised the “12 Flag” as a show of appreciation for the franchise’s hard work.
Despite the many obstacles they faced, the Seahawks have managed to demonstrate that with a disciplined and creative approach to managing the health and safety of personnel, it is indeed possible to pull through such a tumultuous and unprecedented season of football. It’s a different kind of victory that fans may not have expected, but a powerful one nonetheless.