The facts are inescapable. There will be no covid-19 vaccine until fall 2021, at the earliest. Barring unexpected breakthroughs, there will not be an effective preventive treatment or therapy before then, either.
So, from September 2020 through February 2021, we will not be able to safely fill stadiums with tens of thousands of people each week. A handful of asymptomatic carriers among 60,000 cheering fans could easily spread covid-19 to hundreds, even thousands, of others, causing additional outbreaks of the virus and, quite possibly, more death. Indeed, it was a Champions League soccer match with 40,000 fans in Lombardy, Italy, that seems to have ignited the explosion of covid-19 cases that shut the country down. That is not a risk the NFL — or the United States — can afford to take.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t bring football into our living rooms.
It will not be easy, ideal or cheap, but it can be done. And it is important that we try, in order to preserve our sense of normalcy and our social bonds. What follows are five key steps in a Hail Mary play for a 2020 NFL season.
First, football must become a broadcast-only event — no fans in the stands at all. Physical distancing is impossible at sporting events, even if fans sit 6 feet apart. Between lines at entrances and concessions, shared bathrooms, high-fives and loud cheers spewing droplets into the air, games with fans are simply impossible to do safely. In doing without, the NFL would be following the lead of Taiwan and Germany.
Second, to limit any potential spread, the NFL must restrict travel. This would mean centralizing games in one or two locations that have multiple local stadiums. Personnel will have to be quarantined for 14 days prior to the first game, the only travel out of their hotels will be for practice, and those who must leave will have to quarantine for 14 days upon return. These restrictions must last the entire season.
Third, the players, coaches and training personnel must be tested and confirmed to be covid-19 negative. Moreover, all these people will have to be re-tested weekly before games to identify, trace and contain any potential infection.
Fourth, all players, coaches, training staff, broadcasters and technicians will have to wear masks and gloves, including on game day. Because football is a close contact sport, this is the only way to significantly reduce the chance of the virus spreading between players.
And finally, the season should be shortened. Teams cannot be expected to live in isolation for 16 games over 17 weeks. NFL staff spend multiple days away from their families during normal seasons, but five months is a bridge too far. The league will have to consider fewer games followed by an abridged playoff and the Super Bowl. There is precedent — due to player strikes, the 1982 season only had nine games.
Games without fans played by teams living in lockdown. No team owner wants to pay the cost. No star athlete wants to play without fans. Coaches don’t want to lose players to quarantine. And whether it’s in the stands or amongst groups of friends and family, Americans prefer to watch games together, not in small, physically distant gatherings.
Having a truly safe NFL season will require huge sacrifice. But covid-19 is forcing sacrifice on all Americans. Doctors, nurses, truck drivers, food suppliers, and grocery store and pharmacy cashiers are working in unsafe conditions under tremendous pressure in order to keep our country going — the NFL and its devoted fans can do their part for the same cause. A truncated, atypical season is far better than no season at all.
Less than two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium in Game 4 of the World Series. The MLB’s decision to hold the World Series and Bush’s decision to throw the pitch comforted New Yorkers and Americans in a time of distress. This fall, the NFL has the opportunity to do the same.
The reality is that sports, especially football, play an essential role in American life. The NFL’s massive fan base cuts across every socioeconomic, political and racial group. It brings together people who have nothing in common on every other day of the week. Now more than ever, the country needs that social solidarity. We must get it back in whatever way we can.