An NFL season has its rhythms, even between games. Cuts, practices, injury reports. New for 2020 is the daily ritual of waking up to see which players have tested positive for the coronavirus. And Wednesday’s is a major, portentous reveal, casting real doubt on the NFL’s ability to force this to look even the slightest bit like a normal season, and on the NFL’s very ability to accept reality.
Here was the first and potentially most damaging piece of medical news that dropped this a.m.:
Monday’s Patriots-Chiefs game, delayed a day because of a positive test for Cam Newton that came in on Friday night, was held up by the NFL as proof of the practical effectiveness of its COVID-19 protocols. The league was so gosh darn proud of itself, and cheerleaders in the football media were eager to heap praise on the league. And to be sure, it was an accomplishment of logistics. The game was pushed back, no easy feat itself, and Newton was immediately quarantined. A version of contact tracing determined which teammates had been in proximity to Newton, and those players were separated from the rest of the squad, even flying to Kansas City on a separate airplane. All players were tested daily and as close to kickoff as was possible, and all tested negative. From the moment Newton had tested positive, the team and the league had done pretty much all they could feasibly do to play a football game while halting an outbreak. The problem is, and through no one’s fault, those two things just aren’t remotely compatible.
We don’t know a lot about COVID-19 and the coronavirus, at least not compared to diseases and viruses that have existed for more than 10 months. We don’t know everything about how it’s spread, or what it does to the body, or how best to fight it. But we do know some basic things—chief among them about its incubation period. We know it can take anywhere from two to 14 days to show symptoms, and that symptoms aren’t necessarily correlated with when a viral test might first detect the presence of the coronavirus, and that neither of those are necessarily correlated with when a person becomes infectious.
Stephon Gilmore—who was one of the 20 or so Patriots the team soft-quarantined because they had close contact with Newton—interacted with an infected person, tested negative on three consecutive days, played a football game, then tested positive. There is nothing strange about this, a normal course of incubation and infection. Also inherent: that other Patriots may test positive in the coming days. We do not know, but may very well find out, whether Gilmore was capable of infecting others when he played on Monday night. If he was and he did, there’d be nothing weird about that either.
And not only do the Chiefs need to worry about infections from their game against New England, but now they’ve got to be wary of their Week 5 opponents, the Raiders:
The NFL going ahead with Monday’s game was nothing so much as a denial of very basic known truths about the disease, ones that the rest of us grasped and took to heart back in March or April. The league has been big on what we might call hygiene theater—the Broncos were “sanitizing” players in camp while the Falcons are using airborne drones to “disinfect” their stadium after games, both of which, while not really harmful, don’t actually address what we understand to be the primary way the virus spreads. And part of hygiene theater is the unspoken idea that if you just work hard enough at it, you can will the virus away. Infectious diseases don’t really work like that. COVID isn’t cowed by Dan Quinn yelling at a virus while the stirring strains of NFL Films music build in the background, or by Roger Goodell sending out yet another strongly worded memo.
The NFL goes to the lengths it does (and pretends those lengths can be more effective than they are) because it can’t really afford to cancel games. It was one thing when MLB needed to shut down a team for a week and could mostly make it up with scattered double-headers. It’s another thing in a league with a short season, with weekly games and far more prep time required to play them and recuperation time to heal from them. Because of a major outbreak in Tennessee’s locker room, the NFL had already been forced to move Steelers-Titans to later in the season, with some rejiggering of multiple teams’ bye weeks. Having to cancel or postpone a second game for one of those teams could verge on apocalyptic for schedule-makers. And what do you know?
The Titans had seen 18 players and coaches test positive over the last week, with the positives coming in a steady trickle—again, exactly what we’d expect from an infectious disease. But they thought they were out of the woods when zero positive tests came back on Sunday and Monday, and the team was expecting to return to practice today, until the news of two more positive tests came in this morning. Could those infections have been contracted from teammates before any Titans tested positive, and are only showing up now? Yes, easily. Could they be totally unrelated infections in a country where more than 44,000 new cases appear each day? Just as easily, yes.
We don’t know a lot about COVID-19, but we know a few things about sports. We know bubbles, deployed by the NBA and NHL, and by MLB for its postseason, can work. We know that not-bubbling, like MLB tried for its abbreviated regular season, doesn’t work, at least not if your goal is to avoid having to cancel or postpone games. We know the NFL, due to the sheer size of its rosters and the massive logistical undertaking that staging a football game requires, probably can’t enter a bubble. We also know that it can’t afford to postpone many more games before a backlog pushes the Super Bowl into June.
So where does that leave the NFL? Frankly, it leaves them as fucked as they were when they decided to go ahead and try to play through this pandemic, whether they accepted that fact or not. The problem is not that the league and its teams aren’t doing enough. The problem is that they believed there was such a thing as enough they could do.