The NFL’s plan is to keep poking at the virus until people start getting sick

So this happened:

Before anyone gets too excited and/or horrified, the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jacksonville Jaguars have all said they’re going to continue to operate at 20-25% capacity for the time being. This was just Gov. Ron DeSantis making clear that he lifted all restrictions on outdoor sporting events two weeks ago, when he also prohibited local governments from enforcing tougher restrictions or even fining people for not wearing masks. (If you’re wondering how that’s working out, virus rates in Florida haven’t surged so far, staying fairly level — though still high — but then, it generally takes more than two weeks for a surge to take hold, and also when you’re dealing mostly with stochastic spread via superspreader events, there is a lot of randomness involved as to whether and when a surge kicks in.)

So, props to the NFL for not immediately opening the fan floodgates in Florida, sure. But that’s hardly an indicator of a league that is concerned with safety above else. As we’ve seen this week — and as Barry Petchesky adeptly recounted yesterday at Defector — the league is currently dealing with a cascade of outbreaks on teams that has now caused a couple of games to be postponed, and could end up with even more. And, writes Petchesky, it was all totally predictable:

We don’t know a lot about COVID-19, but we know a few things about sports. We know bubbles, deployed by the NBA and NHL, and by MLB for its postseason, can work. We know that not-bubbling, like MLB tried for its abbreviated regular season, doesn’t work, at least not if your goal is to avoid having to cancel or postpone games. We know the NFL, due to the sheer size of its rosters and the massive logistical undertaking that staging a football game requires, probably can’t enter a bubble. We also know that it can’t afford to postpone many more games before a backlog pushes the Super Bowl into June.

That caveat re: MLB’s non-bubble is important: If the goal of “let’s let baseball teams all play in the home stadiums while still seeing their families and going to the grocery store and whatnot” was to keep anyone from getting infected, yeah, it was a disaster. But if the goal was to find a way to limp through a season with lots of postponements and makeup doubleheaders because players weren’t willing to be separated from their families for three months — the NBA and NHL were already up to playoff season, so their bubbles didn’t have to last as long — then it worked exactly as planned.

The NFL, of course, can’t stage doubleheaders, and can’t easily reschedule too many games without adding additional weeks to the season. And with 64-player rosters (48 active, 16 on a practice squad), plus a sport that involved a lot more contact than baseball (though we’re still not clear whether that’s the main risk or it’s just gathering indoors in clubhouses that mostly spreads the coronavirus), that’s a lot more dice being rolled every week than for other sports, so it’s absolutely no surprise that we’re seeing outbreaks.

Unlike MLB, though, which after some initial stumbles realized that you need to quarantine entire teams for a week or more after each new case turns up, the NFL seems to be charging ahead on a policy of Well, hopefully nobody else caught it. After New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive on Friday, Sunday’s scheduled game between the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs was delayed — all the way to Monday night. But it can take four or more days for an infected person to test positive, while they become infectious in as little as 48 hours. So even if Patriots players all tested negative before their Monday night game, someone on the team could easily have still been incubating the virus, and spreading it to their teammates. Which may in fact have happened.

The NFL has already been heavily invested in hygiene theater, touting its disinfecting drones and temperature checks for fans, even though neither does much at all to protect anyone from Covid. (All evidence is that the virus doesn’t spread much via surfaces, and while most people with Covid symptoms run a fever, nearly half of infected people don’t have any symptoms.) Hygiene theater is based on the idea that the easier something is to do, the more one should focus on it; the decision to hold the Pats-Chiefs game on Monday after just a 24-hour delay seems to have been the inverse: If it’s too hard to do, let’s decide it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, in a sport where doing much of anything to combat the spread of the coronavirus among players is really hard, that’s a recipe for, if not necessarily disaster, a whole lot of extremely risky behavior. And the NFL has another decision coming up that is going to be equally hard, if only for economic reasons: The Super Bowl is scheduled to be held on February 7 in Tampa, and DeSantis has now said that it’s okay by him if they sell out the place, and that would be worth tens of millions of dollars to the league. Even if the image of a packed Super Bowl that turns into another biological bomb may give league planners second thoughts, you know that somewhere in the league offices they’re wondering: Could we get away with 30% capacity? 40%? What if we have disinfecting drones hovering over every fan? How close can we get to the precipice of a superspreader event without going over?

And that appears to be the NFL’s policy, really: Keep inching up to the limits of what’s considered safe, see who gets sick, then inch up a little further if it’s not too embarrassing a number. As I’ve noted before, this makes for a very useful experiment about how many fans can be in one place outdoors before disaster strikes — if the NFL really wanted to do it right, it should dictate that some teams allow more fans and others allow fewer, to see what the threshold is for sparking outbreaks — but it’s an experiment with human lives, which when conducted without the humans involved knowing the risks and consenting to them is generally considered a crime against humanity. But then, playing with human lives is pretty much the NFL’s jam, so why quit now while you’re massively ahead?

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10 comments on “The NFL’s plan is to keep poking at the virus until people start getting sick

  1. “but it’s an experiment with human lives, which when conducted without the humans involved knowing the risks and consenting to them is generally considered a crime against humanity.”

    Come on, man! It’s been wall to wall corona virus coverage in the news media since March with PSA’s during every commercials break, the infection tote board continuously displayed on every news outlet, and every “expert” with an M. D. after their name pontificating about the imminent danger to anyone who doesn’t follow government “guidelines”.

    Sorry, anyone truly ignorant of the risks qualifies for hermit status. If this is an experiment, then I maintain they are voluntary subjects. Else, please post pictures of the armed agents forcing the folks to come out to these big beautiful stadiums. It may be hard to believe, but many Americans just prefer freedom.

    1. I’m not talking about the people at the stadiums. I’m referring to the people who will wait on those people at restaurants, have their kids go to school with those people’s kids, sit next to them on the bus, whatever. Unfortunately for laissez-faire theory, people’s individual actions have societal repercussions – quadruply so when you’re talking about viruses, which have literally evolved to take advantage of individual action to wreak social havoc.

      1. When a wildly available vaccine comes online and the capacity, the” you don’t have the right to kill me” is gone.

  2. I understand that your writing style is caustic and a little cynical. It is part of what makes the site so much fun to read. However, in your critique of the strategy of the gradually increasing capacity to see what happens, you fail to provide another alternative to eventually getting sports stadiums to full capacity. Given the nature of the disease, don’t think you could ever set up an effective testing and tracing method, even with an unlimited supply of test in a community with only one active case. The vaccine is a hope at best. Unless you just accept that sports stadiums will never again look like they did in 2019, this seems to be the only step forward.

    Big sports fans are currently trading their enjoyment of going to games for a small measured of increased safety (small because you could still get the virus any number of other places, or die from any number of other causes). They are willing to make this trade because they see it as temporary. If it becomes less temporary, more and more people will not be willing to make that trade. I’m happy to stay home whenever I can right now because I can bear intrusions into my life for a time. Will I be just as happy in 6 months? What about 18 months? What will be different in 18 months? When will it ever be “safe” to pack a stadium and watch sports? Was it ever “safe” in the first place?

    1. The alternative is to wait until the virus counts are down to very low levels, then reopen stadiums to full capacity. Nobody is arguing that fans shouldn’t be allowed to go to games in New Zealand. A vaccine — even only a partially effective one — would get us a long way towards that point, since even, say, 50% immunity in the population would reduce R0, which would keep new infections from exploding out of control, lather, rinse, repeat.

      And once again, I need to point out that painting this as a transactional decision by sports fans, who are rationally weighing the pleasures of live sports vs. the risks of getting sick and/or dying, is completely beside the point when we’re talking about people who don’t even go to sporting events being put at risk of contacting a plague. There may have been risks to going to games in the past — getting hit by a foul ball, choking on a hot dog, having to witness Dallas Keuchel’s facial hair — but none of those created new risks for people just minding their own business at home.

      1. If we follow your logic, then the common cold and the flu put other people at risk then we should never have live sport or concerts again.

        I think the better argument is we probably go back to normal if we had the medical capacity (staffing, ICU beds, etc) to handle the workload. Just saying

        1. If we follow your logic, we shouldn’t have food safety laws so long as we have enough hospital beds for all the botulism patients.

          (For anyone who may be reading this comment thread from another planet: We have vaccines for the flu, which in any case is significantly less deadly than Covid. Almost no one dies from the common cold.)

          1. Food safety laws don’t require a complete transformation of the general public’s way of life. According to the WHO, the disease can be fatal in 5 to 10% of cases. Lets see 216K dead out of 7.6 million infected. Not sure we are there yet.

            Your premise is that the NFL is slaughtering unwilling participants because they will be exposed to a virus by a willing participant. I think that would be true if this were an airborne AIDS virus. If we are to accept that premise for COVID, based on its death rate, then I think we are further getting into the area of subjectivity to apply to that standard. The flu should be consistent with that standard since a good number of people are killed by it. Covid certainly meets the standard since it overwhelms that healthcare system. Running out of ICU beds is a clear and present danger if you have an emergency. Once the threat to the healthcare system is no longer an issue then its more urgent to find a roadmap to life before COVID

          2. My premise is that the NFL is subjecting unwilling participants to unknown and currently unknowable risks because it’s inconvenient to do otherwise.

            Your first sentence implies that you’re good with that, so I guess we’re in agreement here!

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