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NFL

The NFL Postpones Steelers-Titans, Proves That Even It Must Bow Before COVID-19

Joshua Kalu #46 of the Tennessee Titans and his teammates take the field before the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on September 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty

For a full day, the people who run the NFL grappled with the following issues they thought were beneath their notice:

  1. A global pandemic that has killed a million people.
  2. A sport that by its very existence defies all the commonly held laws of common sense viz. that pandemic.
  3. The idea that the show must go on no matter what happens.
  4. The idea that even in-week practice is disposable.
  5. And finally, the idea that some teams are not as equal as others.

And they bowed to all that gravitational pressure Tuesday morning and postponed the much-not-awaited Steelers-Titans game because members of the Tennessee roster and organizational chart have caught the ‘rona. They (the league’s human pyramid of suits) may push the game back a day or two, try to wedge it in later in the season or not play it at all, but they finally took the knee that frankly nobody thought they would.

And to those Yinzers, Nashvilliains and the fifth broadcast team at CBS, our half-hearted condolences. Your lives will be changed in no ways whatsoever.

But while the idea of playing the game was daft (for one, the Titans were locked out of their own building until Saturday, meaning they would be the first NFL team ever to prepare for a game through home schooling), the idea not to play it is a burst of sense that the demands of the business would not normally allow. The NFL owners have always been good at ignoring the demands of the outside world when measured against their own, and finally they have had a door kicked in that they thought they had already locked. It must have occurred to someone that while the Titans are by no means a marquee franchise, even they cannot be treated like this. In a world full of billionaires, every billionaire has at least some say-so about how its business is run, and somehow I’d like to think Amy Adams Strunk, the person running the Titans, pitched a few holy hells at Park Avenue. If she didn’t, we’d all be disappointed. Well, just a little bit, anyway. I mean, it is the Titans.

The decision to postpone the game is probably the only decision they could have made given the ridiculous disadvantages and dangers of making the Titans play without any in-person prep (and this is where those of you who think playing football at all in a pandemic is idiotic can have your say), and it avoids the messy question of, “Well, what would have happened if the Titans had been the Patriots, or the Cowboys, or the Rams, just to name three owners who actually run the league?” Nothing says internal disarray quite like three dozen rich folks trying to kill each other.

And it also inches us closer to the philosophical question: “What happens when games get too dangerous to play, and who makes the call?” So far, the answer has been “Nobody,” because the insatiable need for inventory has overcome all reasonable decision-making. Hey, maybe the NFL saw that the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t even have to complete their season to get into baseball’s postseason and decided that in a worst-case scenario missing one game out of 256 might not be that big a deal after all.

Of course, this presumes the game won’t be forced upon the teams Monday, or Tuesday, or after the regular season, or tacked on to next year. Both teams are 3–0, meaning that historically they have a three-in-four chance of making the playoffs, although the percentage drops to 69.2 when you cut off data to only the 32-team league, and to 66.7 when you go back only to 2013. In other words, not playing at all probably helps both teams a bit because it’s one less opportunity for something to go wrong, not to mention a slightly diminished chance of the virus cleaning out the entire AFC..

But they’ll probably play. The game will be shoddy, and maybe a few extra players get hurt, but the show will go on because the owners don’t want to be starting any precedents about potential heart disease or death getting in the way of the entertainment. Some night in the near future, there will be Steelers-Titans because … well, actually, damned if I know. Maybe Amy Adams Strunk is quietly an ownership badass whom you cross at your peril. Which frankly would be a refreshing change.