In COVID-19’s America, Football Still Isn’t Getting Any Easier

The cancellation of two preseason games last week was the first time the NFL truly bled. Staked out with a prime position for waiting out the coronavirus, the NFL plan has largely been one of attrition: we can lose the OTAs, the mini-camps — all the things that used to be mandatory but really aren’t — because in September, America will be better.

The NFL has, thus far, managed to avoid the PR wars that have enveloped MLB and NBA on this issue. Roger Goodell said some good things. The Washington football team may finally change its name. These are real steps and I do not mean to act as if they are token responses, but they are also steps of bargaining, because they mostly don’t impact football’s bottom line. Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned because once a team does so it would be admitting culpability for what the league has done to him since 2017. No regular season games have been lost. The NFL can continue to say and change words, which are cheap, instead of take actions, which are not.

With the NFLPA requesting a full four-game cancellation of the preseason, and later this week, laying waste to the NFL’s plan to put money in escrow, we have our first volleys of what is going to be two months of frantic re-writing of policies and institutions to try to deal with the fact that there’s no way to play an honest football season in an unhandled pandemic. It will probably get uglier, because this is attacking pocketbooks. The NFL’s best backup plan is one that they have always held: a shorter season than most American sports means that they can push their start date back later than most leagues. But, unless someone is actually working on handling the pandemic, that doesn’t actually matter. Our political leadership has abandoned the portions of the populace that it doesn’t care about.

This is the paragraph where I say some unflattering things about the current direction of political leadership in our country, so if you are a Shades Avatar, know that I don’t expect any of this to change your mind. Our president’s view of the conronvirus is now literally “we need to live with it.” You see, other countries around the world were mostly able to get their head around the virus. Even places like Italy, which needed governing figures to threaten to kick your ass if you left the house. Some of these countries like, say, Germany, Korea, and Japan, are playing professional sports again — mostly to empty stadiums, but still. Playing sports in a pandemic involves a certain base level of virus control that our government doesn’t much seem interested in. The Trump presidency has reached the stage of the grift where it is threatening to kill your grandfather if you don’t send more money.

Where this clashes with football is that, in a rhetorical world where the virus was controlled by competent governance, we would have an easy path to the season. Instead, we have a crime scene, and there’s not enough room for two sets of chalk outlines.

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You likely have heard from someone that COVID-19 doesn’t kill people, especially young people. (I also don’t believe I will change your mind on this if you believe this and are reading this piece only for rage fuel. That is between you and your healthcare plan.) That’s not 100% true, though there is less overall risk for younger (and presumably healthier) people.

The fact of the matter is that many crises of health aren’t very effective in a traditional media sense because newsrooms view them as too gory or graphic to show the real effects of, which is largely keeping people from seeing the truth. It did not take very long to see George Floyd die. It did not take very long to see many, many videos of police brutality at protests. (And they sure did disappear quickly once cops realized how bad it made them look, didn’t it?) We are a society that is video-driven now, because we have learned that words aren’t always to be trusted by the institutions that have abused that. That clashes with what COVID-19 is about because entubing someone and watching it isn’t emotionally threatening. 10 years ago, I watched my mom lie entubed in a coma and I felt nothing — there was nothing disturbing about that part of her stroke. The videos that would be disturbing emotionally to watch are turned away from the same way, say, Alex Smith’s knee injury was. (And shamed once shared in the same way.)

Catching COVID is dangerous to someone’s long-term health. It is a respiratory illness that can keep you from breathing the same way ever again. Initial COVID flash point Rudy Gobert still can’t smell. It could potentially end an athlete’s career. It could potentially take an athlete’s life. Not to be the bearer of grim news, but even at the lower mortality odds for young people, probability would give us a fairly decent chance of one of these restarting sports killing someone who tries to play in America right now. The odds would go up even higher if you included their families, the coaches, the on-field staff, and so on. And if you factor in things like “mistakes from incompetent administrators who think they understand COVID but were only put in their positions because they knew how to make money” — i.e. Major League Baseball’s unconscionable handling of tests so far — the odds aren’t even being made in a perfect world to begin with.

We have to acknowledge that the culture of individuality that American society has settled on over the past 30 years makes it almost impossible that any kind of bubble will be properly adhered to. Do I trust many players with personal responsibility? Absolutely. Do I trust 53, or 75 players to make that choice correctly every day for a month? Hell no! Someone is going to crave barbecue, or go meet a friend that hasn’t been cleared, or go gamble somewhere, and all of the sudden the entire team is exposed to the risks. That’s the whole reasoning that social distancing has been a big part of the game plan for fighting this thing from the beginning. It is incredibly unlikely that gathering football teams together with how entrenched the virus is now is going to be clean and mistake-free.

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So if you are wondering why I haven’t been pounding out Texans content here lately, it has been a mix of two things:

One is that I finished all my Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 content as if the season was going to happen normally. That was a huge undertaking. If you want to get a sense for how deep the research goes for some of this, the first draft of the Top 25 Prospects article by itself was 6900 words, and the information-gathering and writing of the piece took probably 70 hours over five days.

Two is that the entire time I was writing all this stuff, I was struck by how little any of it could matter. There is normally a lot of uncertainty about a football season: Is Baker Mayfield going to blend well with this new offense or not? Does it matter that he has new tackles? Are the new tackles actually going to handle islands one-on-one? And so on. In this case, the virus exponentially disrupts everything. Who knows what the schedule will be? Who knows who will be healthy when teams play? Writing about football uncertainty is usually about pointing at the knowns, and the virus is turning it into a scenario where the knowns can turn on a dime. I could write a big piece about how Deshaun Watson played in 2017 and why I like that offense, but who knows what games Watson will play in? Even asymptomatic players will be kept off the field if they test positive.

Obviously I can’t stop writing about it either way because I need to make my table scraps. But this all feels so, so pointless to me right now. To root for people to put themselves in harm’s way for entertainment has always been something inherent to deal with while watching football. To do so for a season that will likely be riddled with randomness and missed games if not outright interrupted by team-wide outbreaks feels like an obligation not to the game, but to the money that runs it.

And all you need to do to see that is to look at what is happening to the lower levels of the game. The Ivy League postponed their season on Wednesday. Minor league baseball was entirely cancelled this year. My kickball league did not run this summer. The risk is not worth the health consequences unless we put people in a position where they can make a lot of money, which is why a large majority of the players opting out of major league baseball have already signed their big contracts. No incentive.

This is going to be a mess. And the longer the government does nothing about it, the longer it will last.

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