MLB’s botched return could be a warning for the NFL
By Ken Belson
NFL, you’re on the clock. Now that nearly every major North American sports league has resumed some form of play, it’s the NFL’s turn to see if it can navigate the coronavirus pandemic as red flags arise at every turn.
The loudest alarm went off Monday, when Major League Baseball, its new season less than a week old, was forced to postpone several games because of an outbreak among the Miami Marlins. The fallout continued Tuesday when the Washington Nationals players voted against traveling to Miami to play this weekend, and the league postponed all of the Marlins’ games through Sunday. The Marlins now have 17 confirmed positive cases, including 15 players, within their traveling party.
The Marlins’ infections and MLB’s subsequent schedule shuffle were swift and scary reminders that, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease doctor, told The New York Times in April, “the virus decides how quickly you’re going to get back to normal.”
Because the NFL season ended just before the pandemic hit, the league was able to keep to its offseason calendar, albeit mostly online. For months, the team owners and the players union approved plans to reduce the risk of infection by, among other things, reconfiguring locker rooms, reducing travel schedules, eliminating preseason games and carrying out extensive testing of all employees.
But unlike the NBA, WNBA, Major League Soccer and other leagues that created enclosed communities to isolate their players and staff, the NFL followed the lead set by Major League Baseball and the PGA Tour and chose to let players and other employees return to their homes after play, vastly increasing their risk of exposure. Now NFL players are reporting to training camp with one eye warily watching the uncertainty enveloping MLB and the rest of the country as virus cases surge in certain regions.
“I’m not confident in the entire system because it is so contagious,” Austin Ekeler, a Los Angeles Chargers running back, told TMZ Sports. “There’s a reason we’re going through all these shutdowns and things like that. There’s not been really any progress made as far as containing this thing.”
The reasons for going without a so-called bubble are myriad. NFL rosters are far larger than those in other leagues, so zones that players would be restricted to would have to be enormous. Players resisted being cooped up in hotels for months before the league and the union made the decision in the spring to go without a single-site locale to host the regular season. DeMaurice Smith, the executive president of the players union, added another factor: The league and union made their decision when cases were declining, not rising.
As one agent put it: “The league gambled on the calendar and COVID ‘progress’ falling in their favor. They are losing the gamble.”
So now the league and the NFL Players Association are banking on extensive testing and an honor code to keep their season running. On Sunday, the union sent players a memo reminding them that teams can penalize players who are caught at an indoor nightclub, a bar, a house party or other gatherings with more than 15 people. Never mind that the sport itself requires hand-to-hand contact or that the league is only recommending, not requiring, players to wear face coverings.
“This is just the beginning,” said Dr. Scott Braunstein, the medical director of Sollis Health-LA, who was a sideline doctor for the Los Angeles Rams for four seasons. “If they go on without mandating masks and the testing protocol does not change dramatically, this is going to spread like wildfire through the teams.”
It may be too late for the NFL to heed many of the lessons that MLB is learning. Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, told reporters Monday that there are no plans for an enclosed community like the NBA has built. The league, he said, will instead rely on a “virtual football bubble.” In a letter to fans Monday, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the virus will present “a major challenge” this season and that “adjustments are necessary to reduce the risk for everyone involved.”
The commissioner has said he will consult the league’s competition committee to determine what, if any, thresholds must be met to shut down a team hit with a wave of infections, or cancel or postpone games.
The risks are only now being tallied. During the offseason, 95 players and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. On Tuesday, the league said eight more players were added to the injured reserve list because of positive tests for the virus in addition to the two dozen that were put on the list Sunday and Monday.
Tellingly, Eric Sugarman, the Minnesota Vikings head trainer and infection control officer, tested positive and is now quarantined.
“As I sit here in quarantine, it is clear this virus does not discriminate,” Sugarman said in a statement.
A growing list of players have chosen to sit out the season, including Kansas City guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Dallas cornerback Maurice Canady and several New England players, including linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Philadelphia wide receiver Marquise Goodwin said on Twitter that he opted out this season because he did not want to increase the risk that his wife might lose another child after they’d lost three to childbirth complications before the birth of their daughter in February. “I won’t take the chance of experiencing another loss because of my selfish decision making.”
Per the terms of the agreement reached between the league and the union last week, players who opt out will receive a stipend of $150,000 as an advance on the salary they would have earned this season.
Caleb Brantley, a defensive tackle with Washington, is one of a handful of players who opted out because he has one of the 15 medical conditions that the league deems “high risk.” He and others who qualify will receive a $350,000 stipend, but it won’t be treated as a salary advance.
With thousands of players crisscrossing the country to report to training camp this week, the list of positive tests is bound to grow. And as the infections ricochet through MLB, more NFL players are bound to decide to sit out the season.
This is going to test the NFL like never before. Players and coaches abide by the mercenary’s ethic of “next man up”: When one player goes down with an ankle sprain, torn knee ligaments or a concussion, the next man must be ready to take his place. We’re about to find out what happens when the injury is not a bruise or broken bone but an invisible virus.
“It’s at least going to get started,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “How it goes after that probably depends on how well we keep the virus from contaminating the whole building, how other teams do.”