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NFL

The NFL Could Only Get Away With This For So Long

Dez Bryant
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Ravens wide receiver Dez Bryant did not play in last night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, as he was pulled off the field during pre-game warmups because he had just tested positive for COVID-19. What happened next was pretty confusing for everyone, not least of all Bryant.

The game went on without anyone else being yanked because, according to the NFL’s contact-tracing protocols, Bryant was not in close contact with any other players or staff prior to the game. According to the league’s rules, “close contact” is defined as being within six feet of an infected person for 15 consecutive minutes, or coming into direct contact with the secretions of someone who is infected. Is it possible that Bryant managed to get to the stadium, get ready in the locker room, and then take the field for pre-game warmups without being within six feet of someone else for 15 minutes? I guess? Either way, it was funny to watch the Ravens’ editorial director frantically delete this tweet after the positive test was announced:

The timeline of the testing is where things get really silly, though. Bryant became the first player to be put onto the reserve/COVID-19 list so close to the start of a game for one specific reason: The Ravens are closer to a testing lab than most teams. When most teams administer their daily PCR tests, it takes at least 24 hours for those results to come back, which is how we keep hearing about players testing positive for COVID-19 the morning after they’ve played in an NFL game. But the Ravens are apparently close enough to a lab to get their PCR tests back on the same day:

Imagine if last night’s game had taken place at a stadium that was not so close to a testing lab. Nobody would have even known that Bryant’s PCR test came back inconclusive until this morning, meaning that he would have played in the game while infected and infectious, and been around his teammates, and helped the NFL put on another football game. We would have found out sometime today that he tested positive for COVID-19, which would have been no different than the regular news dumps that have followed game days all season long.

Now imagine if every team played as close to a testing lab as the Ravens do. How many of those PCR tests administered before games on Sundays, suddenly capable of returning results on the same day, would have led to players getting yanked off the field during warmups, or in the middle of a game? How many additional games would have been played with severely diminished rosters, or canceled outright? How many more embarrassments would be hanging on this season?

The thing to remember about all of this—the testing protocols, the contact tracing, etc.—is that none of it really means anything. When the NFL congratulates itself for staging yet another successful week of football, all it is really doing is highlighting its ability to awkwardly maneuver within a set of arbitrary parameters that it created for itself. It’s nothing more than various geographical quirks that have kept every other NFL team from dealing with a situation like the Ravens and Dez Bryant did last night, and it’s nothing more than the NFL’s ability to follow its own made-up set of rules that has allowed it to get this far into a season while scores of players and staffers continue to get infected. None of this could be any stupider.