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The NFL must learn from MLB’s ongoing coronavirus outbreak and pursue new paths

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The MLB tried to stave off a coronavirus outbreak mainly through sheer refusal to get infected. Only days into the season, it is clear that is not enough.

GEORGIA-VIRUS-HEALTH Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images

Training camp is about to kick off under the dark cloud of the coronavirus. The NFL and the NFLPA have figured out the basics for the season and are moving ahead with more concrete planning than we’d seen before July, yet many questions remain unanswered.

Le’s start with this: Two dozen players were put on the league’s COVID list after only the rookies reported and players are starting to opt out of the season. As of Tuesday morning, more were doing so, including Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Many players may not want to risk possible long-term heart and lung ailments, and that number will only increase if the number of infected players also increases.

If there were hopes this would just be temporary problems, the MLB coronavirus outbreak, just a few games into the season has dashed those hopes. Now some are calling the MLB season in jeopardy with multiple games already delayed after only three games. How the rest of the shortened season finishes is far from certain.

The NFL seems to be depending heavily on wishful thinking despite the luxury of extra time. “Plan A” appeared to hope everything would just get better. “Plan B” appears to be hoping the NFL will remain magically immune. “Plan C” may just be dealing with the virus spreading slowly across the league before the season is forced to close early. As Bruce Arians said, “they’re going to all get sick, that’s for sure. It’s just a matter of how sick they get.”

The Falcons kick off in a mere 47 days. The idea that frequent testing and telling players to stay away from high-risk actions will keep over 1,000 coaches, players, trainers, and referees will be enough is no longer viable. Moving forward as planned is a plan for failure, whether it’s two weeks into the season or halfway through the year.

It seems to me that there are really only two options if we want any hope at a 16-game season.

Bring on the bubble

Players would certainly be unhappy with the trade-off of the bubble, but it limits the potential exposure of everyone involved. So far, the results speak for themselves: 0 new coronavirus cases after a week in the bubble for the NBA. We may see some coronavirus infections pop up, but those cases will be much rarer compared to the 1,000+ NFL players and personnel that will be on the “honor system” to not get a highly contagious virus. The NFL is even more problematic than other leagues with 53-man rosters and much heavier contact than you would see in baseball, plus thousands of fans in the stands in some cities and plenty of travel. At this rate, it may be a small miracle if teams get to October, assuming the NFL isn’t willing to push through a spate of infections to keep things running.

The risk is so much greater in the NFL, yet the risk could be best mitigated by getting players and personnel locked down in a bubble. Where and how the NFL can accomplish that sort of lockdown is unclear, yet it is the best hope for the full season. There’s gotta be some empty former NFL Europa stadiums, right?

Delay the season

This is the easiest, cheapest solution, so it is surprising to see the league push so hard to keep the current timeline. If the current plan is dozens opting out of the season and potentially hundreds missing multiple games after exposure, we’re going to be looking at the specter of preseason-quality games with a cancellation or postponement still potentially looming

Even though fans are going crazy being stuck at home with only a rare soccer or baseball game to tide them over, a delayed NFL season would pay off in dividends.

The biggest uncertainty is knowing when things would be safe. As soon as games are unsafe, the league risks future games to delays and cancellations. Whether that date is November or January, that delay would do so much to ensuring the season has limited problems, but would obviously bleed into the next year’s league calendar, something the NFL has been zealous about keeping intact in years past.

Or, let’s just watch the season devolve

The alternative is pretending everything will be fine and just hoping things can continue to be like it used to be. We saw that happen in states that limited shutdowns and opened early, as infections rose sharply and deaths have risen more slowly but with the same upward trajectory.

The NFL is heading down the same path, leaning heavily on mask mandates for everything but actual on-field play and hoping that everyone listens in the stands and on the sidelines, and that a handful of cases will not turn into dozens or even hundreds. The league hasn’t indicated it has the appetite to push play through that kind of outbreak—and the players certainly haven’t—so the sooner they explore alternative scenarios, the better.