Yes, we need joyful distractions in times of trouble. And yes, the N.F.L. has long served that need more than any other American sport.
But it’s not worth it at this cost.
Not with players, coaches and staff across the league getting infected with the coronavirus by the dozens.
Not as the virus spirals out of control across the country, causing Dr. Anthony Fauci to predict that “December, January and early February are going to be terribly painful months.”
All sports are trying to plow through this worsening stage of the pandemic, arguing their economics are so dire that there is no other option. College basketball limps along, chasing the financial windfall of March Madness. The N.B.A. is planning to start another season this month, and the N.H.L. is scheduled to begin in January. Baseball remains committed to opening next spring.
But football is different. It has far larger teams and the games have never been played in the kind of tightly controlled “bubble” environments that basketball and hockey used at the end of last season to keep the outbreaks to a minimum.
College football, as I’ve written, was foolish to move forward knowing teams would play in an environment that was impossible to control. Its schedule is full of games halted by the virus. Many of its players, who help rake in millions for their schools but don’t have the benefit of union protection and labor laws, have had positive tests.
Now, pro football, which helped set the tone for a return to sports because of its vast popularity, is an utter mess. So much so that it is simply time for the N.F.L. to press pause, regroup and rethink its approach.
Of the league’s 32 teams, all but one, the Seattle Seahawks, have been hit by the virus. The outbreaks began piling up almost from the start, as N.F.L. teams began flying across the country for games, some of them playing in stadiums with a limited number of fans. In October, two dozen Tennessee Titans became infected, causing the first of what has become a string of postponements.
The N.F.L. looks like it is running a circus.
Among the latest lowlights: A marquee game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, was postponed to Sunday after several Ravens players tested positive, including the league’s reigning most valuable player, Lamar Jackson. As the number of infected players began piling up, the league moved the game to Tuesday.
Then the league rescheduled the game again, this time for Wednesday afternoon.
Why not play at night, giving players who have barely practiced in recent days more time to prepare, decreasing their risk of injury? The scheduling decision hinged on television, the league’s cash cow. NBC, which will broadcast the game, wanted to stick with its plans to air the tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center during a two-hour prime-time special.
On the West Coast, the league didn’t look any better. The San Francisco 49ers will play their next two home games at the Arizona Cardinals’ Stadium, near Phoenix. That last-minute, jury-rigged plan came about after officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., where the 49ers’ stadium is, wisely decided to ban contact sports through late December in a bid to stem the virus surge wreaking havoc in large parts of the state.
But there is a problem: State Farm Stadium is in Maricopa County, Ariz., which has had an average daily rate of 42.7 cases per 100,000 residents in the past week — well above the alarming rate of 29.5 cases per 100,000 residents in Santa Clara County.
The change of venues only makes sense for a league trying to keep a troubled season going, not from the standpoint of public health.
The league was making things up on the fly, the same as it has done all season. “It seems like they didn’t have a plan for what to do once people started testing positive,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health and Security, when we spoke this week. “They’re sort of flying by the seat of their pants, trying to figure out how to actually finish the season.”
Remaining on the current path is a fool’s errand, added Eric Topol, a coronavirus expert and professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. Trying to play without the benefit of an N.B.A.-style restricted environment, he said, “is an exercise not just in futility, but in danger.”
It would be better to pause the season now, retool the health protocols and wait out the coming storm. If the virus recedes to controllable levels by the early part of 2021, resume with a shortened playoff and a Super Bowl — ditching the current plan to allow fans in the stands at that game.
An even wiser option: End the season now.
Fans won’t like it. Players and coaches will balk. A league with teams worth billions of dollars will talk about how it can’t afford to miss out on the television revenue. But it has come to this: For the sake of us all, stop play. Prepare instead for a return in the fall of 2021, when a vaccine has a chance to help life return to something close to normal.
Are N.F.L. games essential? Hardly.
Are teams based in communities brimming with infection? Indeed.
Do virus-infected players and staff members, even the ones who look and feel fine, add fuel to the fire in each of those communities? You bet.
It is possible to love the N.F.L. and stand against the arguments for continuing the patchwork approach heralded by football enablers fixated on profits.
For too long, they’ve normalized the threat.
The persistent risks of the virus — including possible damage to the heart and other organs — are rarely discussed. Positive test results get discussed as if Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, is akin to a sprained ankle for young athletes.
In a September column, as the season got underway, I posed hard questions. Is the return of our country’s most popular sport sending a false alert that we have almost conquered the virus? Is the N.F.L. joining in the deadly and premature message that we’re back, we can do what we want and the ordinary days of old are just around the bend?
It’s well worth thinking about such questions once again.
The death toll stood at 193,700 when I wrote that column. Think of that. All the grandparents, mothers, fathers, children, neighbors. Two months later, roughly 77,000 more have perished. That’s the equivalent of everyone at a packed Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, gone.
It is time to rethink our whole approach to this scourge. The N.F.L. would be an excellent place to start.