I have become increasingly convinced that the NFL is going to play some sort of regular season. They have been building toward it, they’ve had months to prepare, and they’ve staked enough on having it that I expect we will see actual NFL games kick off, though how many and when is still very much up in the air.
There are still huge questions yet to be answered, however. Few are bigger than the question of what happens when a player gets sick, especially in the doomsday scenario described by NFLPA President J.C. Tretter below.
J.C. Tretter said the NFL doesn't yet have an answer to a pretty massive question: What happens if someone like Tretter, a center, tests positive late in a week. Does everyone he came into contact with (up to 30 guys) have to quarantine? The league doesn't have an answer.— Matthew Fairburn (@MatthewFairburn) July 17, 2020
This is an important question because of what it implies. If players don’t have to quarantine based on exposure to a player who tests positive, the NFL will need to have a compelling reason for that, as well as measures already in place that would make players feel comfortable with the disease not spreading based on that exposure. If they do have to quarantine, the NFL either needs to be able to mass replace players (unlikely in the extreme) or the season is likely going to cycle through postponements and perhaps outright cancellation of games, if not the season.
It’s disconcerting if Tretter’s correct and the league hasn’t gotten this far in their thinking. MLB and the NBA are revving up, and in the case of MLB, the testing numbers for players have revealed very few cases, though recent Braves signee Yasiel Puig was unfortunately one of them. Similar testing of NFL players may well reveal the same thing, which will encourage the league to move ahead.
MLB testing update: 93 total positives (80 players) out of 21,701 tests taken (0.4 percent).— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) July 17, 2020
That’s good news for starting the season, but bringing players in close proximity is going to mean even a couple of positives will have the potential to lead to quick spread. The NFL can’t half-keister this because starting the season on a note of optimism and entering, say, Week 4 with dozens or even hundreds of positive tests could very well kill the season there and then, given that players are not going to be eager to contract a virus that studies suggest can have long-term impacts on the heart and even brain.
The league will undoubtedly look to quarantine players who test positive, and at minimum you’d expect the plan followed for the flu (sending players home, having them sit out if they’re ill/infectious enough) to be practiced here. What’s different about COVID-19 is that shots aren’t available yet, immunity isn’t built up among players, containing the spread is a massive public health priority, and as alluded to above, the long-term impacts of contracting the virus are not well understood. Even if the league could treat this like the flu, the rapid spread we’ve seen in the larger country means it could knock out enough players to make playing the game functionally infeasible.
It’s incumbent on the NFL and NFLPA to figure this out, because a player getting the virus during the season is essentially an inevitability. Whether that plan is any good—or even feasible—will go a long way toward determining whether we get a full season or close to it, or basically no season at all.