There was plenty of uncertainty along the way, but the NFL season ended last Sunday without a hitch.
In a season defined by the obstacles brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t always easy to see the league making it to the finish line in Tampa for Super Bowl LV. There were outbreaks, postponed games, and moments where the league’s interest in player safety was questioned, but the league announced last week the overall positivity rate among players and staff members was .08% and the NFL’s research on the virus was used by the government’s health agencies.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it was always difficult to decide whether to postpone games, but he said each situation, starting with the Tennessee Titans’ outbreak ahead of the fourth week of the season, helped the league be better prepared for later incidents.
“Those were some anxious days, there’s no question about it,” Goodell said during a news conference last week. “But we believed in our medical experts, we believed in the protocols, we were able to get that under control and we learned a lot from that, that we then applied.”
The Titans were far from the last outbreak the league handled during the season. Several teams dealt with severe competitive disadvantages because of a group of players testing positive all at once. The Denver Broncos played a game without any of the three quarterbacks on their roster. The Browns played a playoff game without their head coach and a pivotal regular-season game without a handful of starting wide receivers. The Ravens and Steelers played on a Wednesday afternoon in December because of positive tests popping up every day leading into the game.
“Our whole concept here was not to avoid positives, we knew that was not possible,” Goodell said. “When you’re dealing with 7,500 people just in our system who are being tested every day, that was not going to happen. The idea was to test frequently, identify when you have a positive and isolate.”
Goodell and Co. came under fire a few weeks before training camp because of a lackluster plan to keep players safe as coronavirus numbers spiked nationwide. #WeWantToPlay started trending on Twitter in July as several of the league’s stars, including Russell Wilson, JJ Watt, and Carson Wentz, all called for the NFL to put a plan in place for player safety. In response, the NFL and Players’ Association established guidelines that emphasized the importance of contact tracing, social distancing, mask wearing, and daily testing. Even after the guidelines were announced, almost 70 players opted out of the season for fear for their personal safety.
Those who participated, both players and staff members, were required to wear tracking devices that encouraged social distancing with a buzzer sounding if two people got too close to one another, and monitored how long two people were exposed to each other. While it’s hard to imagine the NFL being a model for the government’s Center for Disease Control given the circumstances this season, the data collected by the NFL proved to be useful.
Because of the outbreaks, the CDC was able to study the information gathered by the league, which led to an alteration to its definition of high-risk exposures.
In a study released last week, the CDC capitalized on the increased amount of context the league was able to provide on each transmission, which included information on the room where the spread of the virus likely happened, the use of masks during the spread, and the proximity between the people affected.
“To date, the ability to define a close contact has been limited,” the study read. “... Among 21 NFL cases for which contact tracing indicated likely within-club transmission, seven infected persons had no interactions exceeding 15 cumulative minutes per day within 1.8 meters (6 feet) of a person with COVID-19, as confirmed by wearable proximity devices. This finding led to a revised high-risk contact definition that included ascertainment of mask use and setting, in addition to duration of exposure and proximity.”
In Layman’s terms: Wear your mask.