The National Football League premiered Wednesday Afternoon Football on NBC at 3:40 p.m. yesterday when the Baltimore Ravens faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game postponed three times. The early kickoff was unfortunate but necessary to avoid a conflict with NBC’s broadcast of the annual lighting of the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center.
It’s come to this: the mightiest of all leagues in the most lucrative of all sports upstaged by a Norway Spruce. The NFL has itself to blame. It tried to play away the virus, wishing it off the field like player’s kneeling during the National Anthem or an epidemic of concussions. But no back-office PR team is a match for COVID.
Other leagues have managed better. Baseball shrunk its roster and schedule, banned high-fives, hugs, arguing, and spitting. Mid-season it tightened enforcement after the Miami Marlins suffered a serious outbreak and had a successful World Series. Golf postponed its iconic Masters Tournament until the fall, foregoing blooming magnolias and late sunsets that allowed more hours on the course but bestowing a green jacket on a winner. The National Basketball Association went all out, moving into a bubble in Orlando, isolated players and tested them constantly before crowning Lebron James’ Los Angeles Lakers champions to the roar of a virtual crowd.
In simplistic political terms, the NBA is Joe Biden in a black mask in his house; the NFL is the maskless president holding a dozen parties this month indoors at the White House, with all that “f*cking holiday stuff and decorations” Melania said she didn’t want to be bothered with.
After Patriot quarterback Cam Newton and a dozen Tennessee Titans tested positive in October, the league got stricter, enforcing precautions with video cameras, with fines for unapproved congregating, not wearing a mask, (especially if caught by TV cameras on the sidelines), or going rogue outside the hotel when traveling.
For now, football stumbles along. Sunday, the Denver Broncos, after three quarterbacks tested positive, summoned a wide receiver from the practice squad, a step away from drafting the guy in charge of the Gatorade. This not being Hollywood, there was no Hail Mary pass. Denver was clobbered by the New Orleans Saints 31-3.
The best you can say is that the game did go on. Each contest postponed potentially displaces others in the schedule that have to make room for a rescheduled game, as with the Steelers-Ravens afterschool special on Wednesday afternoon. Each accommodation increases the danger that the Super Bowl will neither be super nor played before baseball throws out its first non-spitball pitch in the spring.
Sometimes a higher authority steps in to save football from itself. The San Francisco 49ers can no longer play at home after the county closed them down in the midst of a California spike. The team is seeking sanctuary in Arizona with a welcoming Trumpian governor. If local rules allow, many teams have fans at half capacity. It’s sad evidence of the split-screen world we live in that Florida’s proud unmasked Governor Ron DeSantis is urging the Miami Dolphins to go for it and fill the stadium to the gills.
In fairness to football, it’s the hardest game to play according to CDC guidelines. Intentionally a contact sport, it’s a gym, a restaurant, a high school and a bar fight rolled into one. Still, after the league rejected the bubble concept, it was asking for trouble by allowing players and staff to wander freely after leaving daily practice at their semi-secure team facilities, vastly increasing the chance of someone returning the next day carrying an infection into the socially undistanced locker room. Twenty Ravens don’t end up on the Reserve/COVID-19 list if everyone’s listening to Dr. Fauci.
And when there are violations, the league doesn’t impose consequences commensurate with the violation, essential to restrain those living in a cocoon of privilege, each, in his own mind, an invulnerable physical specimen. Some disable tracking devices with impunity. Others—multimillionaires—get fines too small to be a deterrent, like the $15,000 imposed on an Oakland Raider for attending a charity event indoors, or $50,000 on the team after letting a guest hang out in the locker room.
The NFL ethic has trickled down to college football where only the Ivy League has called off all sports. While pros have agents and adulthood to protect them, unpaid student athletes on sports scholarships are afraid to raise safety concerns. The NFL doesn’t draft troublemakers. Cheaters and criminals, sure, but not troublemakers.
The model of what not to be is Notre Dame. President Father John Jenkins, who gladhanded with Trump at a party in the Rose Garden, watched as 11,000 fans, excited when the Irish beating #1 Clemson in double overtime, swarmed the field with no security to hold them back. Two weeks later, infections in the county were nearly twice as high as those in any other Indiana county of comparable size. Indiana is now crushed by a 10 percent positivity rate.
Sports is valued for the fun of it and for its teaching of life lessons. Parents drive far and wide for the lessons their kids learn not from connecting foot (rarely) to soccer ball but how to win and lose, to absorb that being called out for not playing fair is worse than going down to defeat. If Donald Trump had played Little League, he would know better than to cry for weeks that the election was rigged only because he lost it.
Last Sunday, competing quarterbacks Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, rather than tap elbows, ignored the rules and exchanged handshakes, and droplets, on camera. The NFL should call them on a public health and personal foul. Otherwise, no matter the score, COVID will win.