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We Have Reached The Absurdist Stage Of The NFL’s Pandemic Failure

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin chat on the sidelines.
Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty

For the shit-hearted, there is something undeniably delicious about the best and only good matchup from the NFL's marquee Thanksgiving slate pinging around to ever obscurer points on the calendar, as if the pandemic has turned sentient and is determined to make an example of the league's hubris. The plan—now that Thursday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday have been ruled out—is to stage this Ravens-Steelers contest Wednesday afternoon, in order to leave primetime television space for the lighting of a gigantic Christmas tree.

For added chuckles, this nomadic Week 12 matchup is starting to chase other games into chaos. The Steelers, whose own internal COVID-19 troubles are being overshadowed entirely by the frightening outbreak in Baltimore, were supposed to play Washington on Sunday. That game has now been tentatively moved to a 5:00 p.m. ET kickoff on Monday. The Ravens were expected to play the Cowboys on Thursday Night Football; that game has now been moved to primetime Tuesday. All of this assumes that the Steelers and Ravens will actually suit up and play Wednesday afternoon, as presently scheduled. By my count, since Nov. 20 an incredible 22 different Ravens players have been put on the COVID-19 reserve list. For good reason, the Ravens do not seem right now like they are super committed to staging this contest. You would be wise to wait at least another 24 hours before betting your home on this game taking place.

But the comedic value of all this is limited by grim reality. Shit-heartedness will only get you so far. The way this stuff is covered—NFL water-carriers and scoop-hounds treating a viral pandemic as essentially an arbitrary logistical challenge, with the league deserving and receiving praise for flexibility and willpower in forging ahead with a 16-game, 17-week regular season—feeds into the sense, reinforced generally by the culture wars of our time, that infection statistics are simply how we measure and grade the efficacy of an organization's or business's or government's or society's theory of pandemic management. That what makes infections bad is that infections create more infections, and an accounting of infections will be how we know whether someone had a good or bad grip on this thing, whether their protocols were sufficiently serious, or how carefully they followed those protocols. Infections are just data points used to measure performance.

Perhaps because the coronavirus has become an incredibly stark microcosm and metaphor in the 21st century battle over the existence of objective truths, I have found that it can be easy to forget that the NFL's exasperating and worsening mid-week spikes in COVID-19 cases are not, or are not only, a little recurring triumph for my side of that battle. I have been locked in my house for most of a year; in two weeks or so it will be true that my first child was both conceived and born not just during acute phases of the virus's stateside spread, but without there having ever been any non-acute intervening periods where it was effectively managed. From this position of endless social isolation and monotony, I find that I do become the thing that delusional reactionary maniacs most want me to be, which is someone whose pandemic caution is inescapably tied up with my political identity. It has long since become the case that infection statistics help to make sense of and validate the choices I have made over the last year, about how to live. It's weird and uncomfortable to admit that, but there it is.

The NFL was always going to be on the other side of this—we'll call it the wrong side, because we have the statistics to prove it—because it is an idiot macho hell-hole with nightmare fans, replaceable players, owners who are wildly, hysterically partisan and politically compromised, and the same issues of debt and labor exploitation and economic disparity that plague the rest of our dumb country. And so the league's present humiliation, a genuinely excellent Thanksgiving matchup looking more and more like it's going to be played on Independence Day, feels like another victory for facts over delusions, and caution over wishful thinking. Eat it, NFL.

Except, man, COVID-19 is a scary disease. It's worth remembering that second-year Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead has been ruled out for the season with COVID-19 complications, and has been hospitalized twice for "significant respiratory issues." Second-year Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney is out for the season after developing myocarditis due to a coronavirus infection. Those guys are a combined 49 years old, and in their absolute physical primes. Serious symptoms and complications scale up with infections, as do deaths. Infections do lead to more infections, and as more and more strain is put on hospitals, the worst and most dangerous time to become infected is when there are more infections. At least 40 NFL players have been added to the COVID-19 reserve list since last Monday. Some perfectly inevitable number of these guys and the people they infect around them will just never be the same.

The NFL's ongoing spike in infections and the downstream logistical nightmare are both darkly funny and also really fucking heinous and unforgivable. That as resourced an operation as the NFL is forging ahead as the whole thing becomes surreal and warped and spectacularly degraded is as vicious a values statement as you are likely to encounter without actual instruments of torture. The entirely preventable consequences of staging farcical off-hours contests between backups and castoffs in order to at some point award as illegitimate a championship as the sport has ever seen, in order to fulfill broadcasting agreements, will be people's whole damn futures. The league is eating shit now, but there may not be enough shit in the whole world for them to get what they deserve.

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