By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s no easy way out of this one.
When the Titans experienced a COVID-19 outbreak this week, the league took a wait-and-see approach and held out hope that things would work themselves out. They didn’t. Once the league begrudgingly accepted reality and gave up on its dreams of a double-Monday Nighter or a Tuesday football TV extravaganza, a neat and tidy rescheduling process took care of the slightly-inconvenient-but-not-all-that-disastrous postponement of that game until Week 7.
Yet Saturday showed that navigating the waters of playing tackle football from coast to coast in the middle of a pandemic is not quite so simple. And it may no longer be possible.
That may seem like an overstatement after Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19, but consider the implications.
Already, the game has been moved back, either to Monday or Tuesday. For now. Much more likely is that the game is not played at all, considering Chiefs practice squad quarterback Jordan Ta’amu also tested positive for the coronavirus.
Without a doubt, a rare Tuesday night meeting between the Patriots and the defending Super Bowl-champion Chiefs would be an absolute ratings bonanza. Yet with both teams infected by the virus, putting 100 players on the field just a few days from now to slam heads and pig-pile on top of each other — after 50 of them, plus an entire coaching staff shares an airplane — might not be the sagest move in the long run.
From various reports, the Patriots are already concerned about their own situation, having shared spaces with Newton.
In exchanging texts with multiple #Patriots players, there is relief that they're not getting on a flight today but said one, "We've seen what's happened in Tennessee. It's a concern. It's scary. I don't want to bring this home to my family." @nflnetwork @AroundTheNFL
— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) October 3, 2020
I’m talking with some players on the Patriots over text and they are all very concerned.
One player “How can we play this game?”
Another player “I had it already so I am good but only a few of us have had it.”
— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) October 3, 2020
The NFL should know what the risk of playing this game this week can mean. And the Titans are providing a daily example.
On Saturday morning, three more members of the Titans organization — one player and two staff members — produced positive COVID tests. Those positives brought the total number to 16 — eight players, eight staff members — this week. The fact that the Titans first produced positive tests on Tuesday and continued to produce positive tests throughout the week despite shutting their facility down immediately shows that the incubation period clearly varies from person to person. Someone could be exposed to the virus on a Saturday, test negative from Monday through Thursday, and then test positive on Friday.
The CDC’s official stance is that “the onset and duration of viral shedding and the period of infectiousness for COVID-19 are not yet known with certainty,” while noting that mild to moderate carriers may be contagious for 10 days while people suffering from severe cases may be contagious for up to 20 days.
As this relates to the Patriots and Chiefs, there is simply no way of knowing if every single player who would be active for the game is not carrying the virus. Thus, there’s no way to ensure that this football game does not become the moment that shuts down the season for these two teams.
Really, this moment serves as a warning that the NFL’s plans of closing its eyes and hoping for the best is not tenable during a pandemic. While a bubble format may not have been feasible either, it’s clear that a laissez faire approach to a contagious virus was doomed to fail from its inception.
If that sounds too doom-and-gloom for this one positive test, consider this: The Vikings played against the Titans last week. Thus far, no Vikings players or coaches have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s seemingly a positive development, of course. But it’s far from conclusive evidence that playing tackle football — and thus, exchanging bodily fluids — does not spread the disease.
For one, though every day feels like its own year in 2020, it’s only been six days. Given all of the unknowns about the virus from the scientists who have spent the last seven months studying it, nobody should be considering the Vikings out of the woods just yet.
And if any Vikings test positive after they play the Texans this weekend? It’s not at all hyperbolic to say the entire NFL season may screech to a halt.
Now, that’s the situation for a game where a team merely has the potential to be carrying the virus without having any positive cases. The situation for the Patriots, where a known positive has been in and around the facility and working in close contact with his teammates every day, is a bit more dire.
Simply put, the Patriots absolutely cannot play a football game this week. Really, the NFL should already be evaluating whether the Patriots can play a football game next week. Maintaining the possibility of a Pats-Chiefs Tuesday night spectacle at this point feels like nothing more than wishful thinking. And just in case it’s not abundantly clear by now — at a time when the President of the United States, his wife, and several members of the White House inner circle are testing positive for COVID — the world can agree that the virus cares not for wishful thinking.
The virus cares about one thing and one thing only: spreading. The NFL is only making the problem worse by acting or hoping as though football players and coaches and their families will all somehow be immune.
This all, of course, is good news to exactly nobody. This is not what the league wanted, it is not what the players and coaches wanted, it’s not what the fans wanted, and it’s not what the media wanted. But “wanting” and “cautiously expecting” are two very different concepts; it appears as though the NFL stayed stuck on the former without giving proper credence to the latter.
For the entirety of August and three weeks of the season, it looked like somehow, the league’s abounding optimism was paying off. But in the span of just five days, it’s all come crashing down.
Thus far, two teams have been greatly affected in-season. If the league takes a short-term approach and forces games to be played, the long-term effect could well be completely devastating.
For a league that’s experienced long stretches of shaky leadership from Roger Goodell, the commissioner’s unwillingness to be at the forefront of the league’s decision-making now is growing more and more conspicuous. After ensuring labor peace just in the nick of pre-pandemic time in March, the commissioner is past due to emerge from the shadows and take a definitive stance on the safety of the league’s players, coaches, game officials, team employees, and all of their families. Without clear leadership and informed decision-making, the 2020 NFL season seems doomed to fail. Operation “Hope For The Best” has officially run its course.
Now, at this precise juncture, whether the NFL chooses to pivot with its virus strategy or forge ahead undeterred figures to be the decisive moment that determines whether the 2020 season will be completed. Even the mighty NFL can only play with fire so many times before getting burned.