Players are reporting to NFL training camps across the country, the New York Giants included. In any other year the opening of NFL camps and the approach of preseason games would dominate sports media landscape. After all, if baseball is America’s pastime, then football is America’s obsession.
But the story of the moment isn’t baseball or football, but the COVID-19 pandemic. Really, it’s the same story that has either dominated the news cycle since February or served as a backdrop to every other headline. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to understate just how profound our lives have been disrupted by the virus. Through it all has been a longing for the return of sports — both for a distraction and the return of some sense of normalcy.
The first few days of return of baseball seemed to go well, but then we got another indication that things just are not normal when news of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Miami Marlins’ players and coaches.
It started small, as these things tend to do, with just a couple players testing positive before a game with the Philadelphia Phillies. They played the game despite the positive tests, with manager Don Mattingly saying, “We never considered not playing [Sunday]. We are taking risks every day.”
Tuesday it was announced that at least 17 Marlins players and coaches have tested positive, and their season has been put on hold.
And with that, baseball’s season has already been thrown into turmoil. Monday night’s game between the Phillies and the New York Yankees was postponed, as was the Baltimore Orioles home opener — which was supposed to be played against the Marlins — was postponed as well. And with the Marlins’ season frozen while they deal with the outbreak Major League Baseball has had to reshuffle its schedule to keep games being played and to accommodate a team being removed from the schedule.
Hopefully the Marlins’ situation is the worst thing that happens with sports this fall. Hopefully it serves as a wake-up call and reminder to the rest of the sports world. Hopefully it will drive home the seriousness of what sports are facing. Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez was frank in his reaction to the news out of Miami;
“My level of concern went from about an eight to a 12. This thing really hits home now that you’ve seen half a team get infected and go from one city to another. I have friends on that Miami team, and it really stinks. I am not going to lie or sugarcoat anything. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for anybody. I have guys in our clubhouse that are really concerned as well, and for me, this is my family.”
Much of this piece has been about baseball, but I needed to lay the foundation before getting to the main question, which is “What can — and should — the NFL learn from the Marlins’ situation?”
There isn’t a perfect analogue for football. The rosters are large and unless the NFL switches to flag football for a season, there’s really no way to avoid getting up close and very personal on the field. However, MLB and the NFL have opted to try and handle their seasons similarly. Both leagues have decided to forego “bubbles” and preserve home and road games, as well as allowing their players the freedom to interact with their community. That is to say, no NFL player, coach, trainer, or employee is going to get quarantined after going out for... wings.
And since the potential for community transmission is present, the potential for an outbreak like the one which hit the Marlins is present as well.
So what can the NFL learn from MLB and the Marlins? I’m not a doctor or an epidemiologist, I don’t even play one on TV, but I do think I have a couple lessons we can learn.
- Listen to the professionals. Before Sunday’s game, Marlins’ team leaders spoke to the roster and the players voted that they wanted to play. “There was never a thought that we would not play,” Miguel Rojas said. But if there’s one thing we’ve all learned about elite athletes, it’s that they always want to play. Sprained ankle? Painkillers, tape it up, and take the field. Concussion? Just got his bell rung, and three fingers is close enough. But in this case, as with so many others related to player safety we have seen over the years, the experts have to take the lead. If the doctors express concern, they can’t be over-ridden.
- Be hyper-vigilant. That doesn’t mean panic or over-react, but absolutely treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves. COVID-19 is a novel virus and we don’t know everything about it yet. But we do know that it’s relatively infectious, has a relatively long incubation period, and can be spread during that period. So not only do teams need to test early and often and conduct contact tracing, but also be vigilant in the little things. Encourage all the sanitary practices we know limit the spread of the virus, from distancing when possible to hand washing and sanitizing as frequently as necessary. Since the NFL isn’t operating in a bubble, it’s possible — even likely — that players, staff, or coaches will test positive. The best thing the NFL can do is try to limit those instances to individual cases and keep spread down within the building.
- Be flexible. MLB has already shown us that Mike Tyson knew what he was talking about; everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face. The NFL needs to expect a punch in the face and have back-up plans at the ready. They need to plan for something like a team-wide outbreak and a schedule being reshuffled. What they can’t do is assume everything will go as usual, or try to push through with a “next man up” mentality. That might work for the attrition we see in a normal season, but this isn’t a normal season. Perhaps the NFL could consider paring back the season to a nine-game schedule of divisional and in-conference games. That might allow them the flexibility to put seasons on hold if an outbreak occurs. It could be similar to how school schedules are built in areas of the country where snow is a thing — extra days are built in on the assumption that snow storms would force at least a couple cancellations over the course of the year.
Right now nobody knows what is going to happen as training camps open more fully and the regular season kicks off. Earlier today Ed wrote about a feeling of “trepidation” regarding the return of football, and I think that’s a pretty apt description. We don’t know what to expect, we don’t know if things will go off without a hitch, if the NFL has done enough planning and preparation, or if the league’s best laid plans will go awry. And that’s certainly cause for trepidation.
Overall, at least in my opinion, the one thing the NFL can’t learn from the Marlins’ situation is nothing. They can’t press forward with a cavalier attitude, or they might be doomed to repeat some very recent history.