COVID-19 outbreak shows just how fragile this NFL season is

We’ve watched how different sports and sports leagues have tried to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. From the NBA playing in a bubble in one city to leagues playing in empty stadiums, everyone is trying to avoid a spread of the coronavirus throughout the teams and league. The COVID-19 outbreak within the Tennessee Titans could prove to be a precursor to further spread among other teams. As I write in my latest newspaper column, the NFL should plan to adjust the season now in case other teams have similar viral outbreaks.

20 Tennessee Titans players, coaches and staff members test positive for COVID-19

Twenty. That’s the number of positive COVID-19 tests from one NFL team. As of Sunday, the Tennessee Titans have had 10 players and 10 coaches and staff members test positive for the coronavirus. Now the NFL aims to clamp down on the spread of the virus with new policies to try to keep this outbreak from happening across the league.

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On September 24, a defensive back the Titans signed to their practice squad three days earlier tested positive. Two days later, and the day before Tennessee played the Vikings, an outside linebackers coach tested positive. That coach did not travel to Minnesota. While no Vikings players tested positive after the game, the virus spread throughout the Titans organization. For six consecutive days, at least one Titans player tested positive. By Sunday, 10 players and 10 staff members had COVID-19.

The NFL tightens its COVID-19 policies

According to a memo obtained by The Athletic, on Monday the NFL mandated all teams install video surveillance in order to ensure compliance with mask and PPE use inside their facilities. Tryouts during the week have been limited, and players are now banned from gathering outside of football activities.

The NFL also recommends teams hold virtual meetings, limit time players are in the locker room, and decrease the number of people traveling with the team.

The memo also reportedly mentions the possibility that teams with significant outbreaks could forfeit games. Other possible punishments for failing to comply with COVID policies include fines, suspensions, and loss of draft picks.

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Will the new NFL policies prevent future outbreaks?

I have no problem with any of these policies. I’m skeptical that they will effectively prevent another team from having a Titans-like outbreak.

The COVID-19 testing each team is doing is certainly useful, but it won’t prevent the virus from getting into an organization. The CDC states the coronavirus has an incubation period that can last as long as 14 days. A player or coach can have the virus and pass it to others up to 72 hours before they even begin showing symptoms themselves.

Plus, any COVID policy for team facilities has little impact on decreasing the risk outside of football. A player’s wife could contract the disease at work, or at the gym or grocery store. She wouldn’t know she has it, or that she is contagious, when her husband comes home from practice that afternoon. Three or four days later, when she shows symptoms, that player could have already spread it to others in his locker room.

Could the NFL create team bubbles in each city?

Playing in an NBA-like bubble to mitigate the risk doesn’t seem feasible. The number of players and team personnel involved and the field and locker room requirements would be much greater than what the 22 NBA teams needed this summer. Some have suggested creating individual team bubbles in each city, but I’d think requiring that many players, coaches and staff to stay away from their families for the next four months would be close to impossible.

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Change the schedule now to prepare for further COVID-19 outbreaks

I’d suggest the NFL go ahead and extend the season now to prepare for inevitable outbreaks on other teams. Add a second, and maybe third, bye week. Push back the start of the playoffs and the Super Bowl. If no further outbreaks occur, then teams and their banged-up players get some much-needed rest later in the season. I realize the inconvenience of completely rewriting the schedule in terms of its effect on travel, stadium personnel, and network broadcasts. But those changes would ultimately have little impact on TV ratings and fan support.

The Titans outbreak could be a one-time unlucky break, and the NFL season could proceed without any other hitches. But with what we’ve seen with the coronavirus across the U.S. since March, and even in the White House last week, it seems more likely that COVID-19 will continue to interfere with the NFL season.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the October 6, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.

References:

NFL changes COVID-19 protocols following increase in cases across league. The Athletic. October 5, 2020.

Jones: As NFL reaches COVID-19 crossroads, will its optimistic gamble backfire? By Lindsay Jones. The Athletic. October 4, 2020.

Timeline of the NFL COVID-19 outbreak: How positive tests led to postponed games. By Turron Davenport. ESPN.com. October 3, 2020.

Kravitz: COVID-19 outbreak for Titans has been a giant wake-up call for NFL. By Bob Kravitz. The Athletic. October 2, 2020.