Prep the fireworks, get the banners in place, and put that champagne on ice: The NFL is ready to celebrate, uh, successfully reaching the end of Week 12 about 24 hours before the start of Week 13. The haters may have doubted Roger Goodell and the NFL’s ability to meet the absolute bare-minimum requirement of continuing to hold games amid a worldwide plague without any real safety measures to speak of, but even the most hardened detractor cannot deny: Football games are happening. The shield is safe. You’re welcome.
What exactly has been “remarkable” about the NFL’s ruthless and blundering attempt to carry on a normal season amid an ever-worsening pandemic? Everything related to COVID-19 and the league is getting worse without showing any signs of slowing down; the only thing proceeding apace is the schedule itself. To take even a rhetorical victory lap at this moment is like shooting yourself in the leg and then congratulating yourself for putting the band-aid on properly, or standing in the middle of a burning house while smirking, Nobody can question my loyalty to this house. To feel anything positive about the fact that, say, no Ravens players tested positive for the first time in 10 days requires both a significant misunderstanding of the inherent manipulation of COVID-19 data on game days and also a willful blindness to the fact this is, essentially, the NFL’s system working just as it was intended to.
Goodell is actually correct here, if for the wrong reasons. The “protocols,” such that they can be said to exist, have less to do with the prevention of viral spread or the assurance of player safety and much more to do with ignoring the virus as much as possible so that the league and its teams can keep playing games.
That grim and cynical goal has indeed been accomplished so far, thanks in large part to a viewing public with a desperate need for some light amid this dreary year, a goldfish’s memory, and a press corps of clammy toadies eager to push whatever line the league is currently pushing in hopes of keeping people from reaching the obvious conclusion that none of this is reasonable or safe. The NFL wouldn’t be able to get away with this shoulder-shrug were it not for the residual goodwill about the viability of sports that was generated by the NBA and NHL having infection-free postseasons in actual bubbles. It would also be impossible without a generalized apathy among the press and fans regarding what a positive test means. The mid-summer wave of positives in the NBA was serious news ahead of the bubble; just a few months later, unchecked outbreaks within multiple teams are merely inconveniences.
The point of this NFL season is not to hold games safely, but to just hold the games, period. The league’s willingness to lie about its protocols being met, even amid obvious and incontrovertible data that the spread of COVID-19 within the NFL is accelerating, is transparently in service of that aim. The Broncos having to start a practice-squad wide receiver at quarterback doesn’t show that the team simply didn’t follow the rules so much as it shows that those rules are bunk. The rules, in the narrowest sense, are doing just what they were set up to do, which is to exist and nothing more. Of course it’s woefully insufficient. There was never any other plan but this.