Remember when everybody wanted to kick the Miami Marlins out of Major League Baseball and staple Rob Manfred through the toenails to a wooden pike outside the city gates? Man, that was a crazy week. The Phillies went seven straight days without playing a game. The commissioner’s office warned the players that the season was in jeopardy. The scribes and the talking heads and the self-deputized Twitter police swarmed like midges around Joba Chamberlain’s head. The sport was tarnished! Lives were at stake! Everyone back to the hermetically sealed bunkers!
You remember how that week ended, don’t you? It just ... ended. Sunday became Monday, and the Phillies played the Yankees, and the rest of us quickly found other outlets for our hysteria. Within days, Matt Klentak’s bullpen was back atop the list of the sport’s biggest disasters.
Buried within this sequence of events is a lesson for the NFL as it deals with its first significant COVID-19 outbreak of the 2020 season. Early Tuesday, news broke that the Titans had three players and five staffers test positive, prompting the team to shut down its practice facility and begin the race to contain the presumptive outbreak. By the end of the day, Tennessee had added three players to the reserve/COVID-19 list, and was making arrangements for a week of virtual practice. As was the case during MLB’s first outbreak, the impact of the Titans' positive tests has rippled far beyond Nashville. In Minnesota, the Vikings quickly shut down their practice facility after having played a game against the Titans 48 hours earlier. This leaves two other teams in something of a holding pattern as the NFL considers how to handle Sunday’s scheduled games between Houston and Minnesota, and Tennessee and Pittsburgh. The Vegas sportsbooks have taken both contests off the board.
The whirlwind of events was a humbling reminder of the reality in which all of us are currently living. For a while there, things seemed surprisingly normal, albeit with more masks and fewer fans. Nobody who watched Patrick Mahomes throwing 40-yard dimes off his back foot on Monday night felt any less awe than he or she normally would. The money we gambled and the fantasy points we accrued still counted the same. To a surprising extent, the football felt more or less like football, the same way that a lot of the things that were different about our lives had gradually come to feel the same. Here in Philadelphia, we were benching the quarterback, and firing the coach, and projecting the Eagles' draft position less than three weeks into the season. In other words, it felt like every other year.
Now? I suppose it is time for one of our periodic breaks where we remind ourselves that 2020 is actually the worst. If you’ve been asleep for the last month, you haven’t missed anything. Everything is still awful. With that, it might be worth reminding ourselves that history cannot possibly judge anything that happens in these seasons in its usual context. At the moment, one of the NFL’s seven undefeated teams is facing the prospect of playing a game without any practice. While two of the players on Titans' COVID-19 reserve list are a long snapper and a practice-squad tight end, a third is starting nose tackle DaQuan Jones. It doesn’t take too much creativity to imagine a scenario in which a single positive test ends up costing a team a win.
That’s not to say that we should lower our expectations or rethink our evaluations of the performances we’ve seen. Every player, coach, and executive who is participating in this season is battling the same circumstances. Still, it is only human to acknowledge that, inside of those empty stadiums, and on the firing end of these Zoom press conferences, things undoubtedly feel mighty weird.
Then again, nobody’s life feels completely normal these days. The one thing the NFL should not do is bow to the pressure it will inevitably feel from those who think football is any less practicable a profession. The argument against playing these games has always been contingent on the assumption that athletes and coaches and personnel are less likely to contract COVID in normal, everyday life than they are inside the structure and safeguards of a competitive season. It remains a baseless and misguided assumption, as illustrated by a simple for-instance. Imagine the life of your average college kid, and then imagine the life of your average college kid who plays Division I sports. And then imagine that, rather than sealing themselves inside of their dorm rooms until it is safe to play football, these athletes would be doing the same things as all of the other college kids.
Acknowledging reality isn’t the same as diminishing the gravity of a pandemic. Every day of life that has been lost to this virus is a tragedy. But the reality is that bad things happen. Life is a never-ending tradeoff between minimizing risk and maximizing happiness. From everything we’ve seen thus far, the NFL has created an environment where everyone in its atmosphere is better equipped to weather COVID than they would be out here with the rest of us. The NBA Finals are about to begin, and the league has yet to announce a single positive COVID test. Likewise, the MLB postseason is upon us, and the Marlins are in it. Is there anybody left who thinks playing these games was a mistake?
Look, people like watching sports. As long as you keep giving them the opportunity, they will keep tuning in. Sure, they might spend a day or two accusing you of laying the groundwork for a mass casualty event. Eventually, though, their consciences will clear, and you can go back to giving them what they really want.
The NFL has always been well ahead of the curve in its understanding of the state of play in this country. The news is a cycle, and when the smoke clears, the same number of people will watch. Maybe that means moving a couple of games or postponing them to a later date. The NFL has made all of the right moves so far. The only thing that the rest of us can do is hope for no seven-inning doubleheaders.