The NFL’s looking for ways to have its Covid and eat it, too

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday, three days before the team’s scheduled matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders. The next day, second-string quarterback Case Keenum tested positive, and by Friday morning, the NFL Network was reporting that more than 20 Browns players, including at least 10 starters, had been ruled ineligible to play because of Covid infections.

The positive cases are happening too fast to count.

After the emergence of variants delta and omicron, Covid is once again ripping through the sports world, and the number of infected players and coaches is rapidly becoming the No. 1 story in the industry. The positive cases are happening too fast to count.

According to one Thursday evening account, on just three NFL teams — the Browns, the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Football Team — 67 players had entered Covid protocols. The New Orleans Saints announced Friday that head coach Sean Payton had tested positive and wouldn’t be on the sideline for Sunday’s matchup with their division rival, Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After fans and even players and coaches were wondering if the NFL would force the most impacted teams to take the field with their depleted rosters, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell finally announced Friday afternoon the postponement of Saturday’s scheduled Browns-Raiders matchup and the scheduled Sunday games between Washington and the Philadelphia Eagles and the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks.

In his statement, he wrote, “Each club is obligated to have its team ready to play at the scheduled time and place. There is no right to postpone a game, and games will not be postponed or rescheduled because of roster issues affecting a particular position group or particular number of players.”

Covid isn’t just tearing through the NFL. As Jeff Tracy at Axios reported, as of Thursday there were 52 NBA players in Covid protocols. Tracy also noted that at the request of Quebec public health officials, Thursday’s game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers was played in the absence of fans, and 13 college basketball games (men’s and women’s teams) and six Premier League matches in the U.K. had been canceled or postponed.

When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid in March 2020 and the NBA shut its doors, it sent an unmistakable message that the world had changed in a fundamental and irrevocable way. If the leagues shut their doors again, the message would again be unmistakable: If we’re not quite back to where we started, we’re way too close to that point for comfort. Shutdowns of businesses — not to mention colleges — that depend on the traveling multibillion-dollar caravan of sports would happen afterward, and on it could go.

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But professional sports leagues — the NBA in particular — are already hemorrhaging money due to lower attendance attributed to the public’s concern about Covid. Shutting down games altogether would be an economic disaster.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t shut down, just that they won’t.

The leagues are looking for ways to have their Covid and eat cake, too. Earlier this week, the NFL and the NFL Players Association negotiated changes to the league’s Covid protocols. There are now much stricter policies around masking at team facilities, reductions on the number of people allowed in the weight room and cafeterias being turned into grab-and-go operations, and everybody involved with teams that have had outbreaks will now be subject to daily testing, whether vaccinated or not.

However, the league and the players union also loosened the requirements for the number of times a player needs to test negative for Covid before returning to the field. Although the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, insisted this is just a fine-tuning (the word he used was “precision”) it feels much more like a feint, a trial balloon, as the NFL — and all leagues — look for a way to avoid taking their stars out of the game.

Professional sports leagues — the NBA in particular — are already hemorrhaging money.

According to insider talk in the professional sports leagues, the most daring — and most dangerous — idea is letting asymptomatic players play and potentially letting Covid run rampant. According to Greg Auman of The Athletic, Bucs coach Bruce Arians said Friday, “If you’re asymptomatic, you should be allowed to play.” The insider talk — which Arians just said out loud — involves treating Covid as a mere respiratory illness: If the player feels bad enough, you sit the player, but otherwise, the player plays. The leagues must be licking their chops at such an idea because, if nothing else, it would mean they don’t lose television revenue. The problem is that it would turn every game into a potential superspreader event. It would also put at risk the newborns, the older people and the immunocompromised people in the player’s immediate orbit.

But the greatest harm could be the message such a move would send to society, which suffers most from the virus and doesn’t need to be encouraged to ignore danger.

The sports world needs to grow up, stop focusing on the bottom line and the creature comfort of sports and shut down what needs to be shut down. It needs to send the message that pretending Covid doesn’t exist won’t make it disappear. But with its employees pushing for asymptomatic players taking the field faster or not even having to take a beak, that doesn’t appear to be the direction the NFL is heading, and that is a decision to our collective peril.

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