It was just a normal Saturday in the tense new world of college and pro football.
The New England Patriots reopened their facilities after canceling Friday’s practice because of a positive COVID-19 test. The Jacksonville Jaguars closed their facilities after a practice squad player tested positive on Friday. The Denver Broncos traveled to face the Patriots without running backs coach Curtis Modkins, who tested positive for COVID on Saturday morning, and also without running back Melvin Gordon III, who had an illness that was feared to be COVID but now has been determined to be unrelated.
Meanwhile, in college football, Alabama’s legendary, soon-to-be 69-year-old, coach Nick Saban was cleared to be on the sidelines in the Tide’s blockbuster game against Georgia after his original diagnosis of COVID was determined to be a false positive. Two other Southeastern Conference games — Florida vs. LSU and Vanderbilt vs. Missouri — scheduled for Saturday were postponed by the SEC because of COVID-19 outbreaks, as was next Saturday’s Missouri-Florida contest.
That brought to 32 the number of games involving Football Bowl Subdivision teams to be postponed or canceled since late August because of COVID. The NFL, likewise, has several times had to reconfigure its schedule, an increasingly complex matter, to accommodate virus-related issues.
The college football season has never felt so fragile. The NFL season has never been so imperiled. Yet both entities plow ahead, proclaiming continued confidence in the protocols and safeguards they have in place.
We are nearing an inflection point that was inevitable from the moment that football forged ahead, in the face of a pandemic that is ruthless and nondiscriminatory. Lacking the bubble that worked so well in the WNBA, NBA and NHL but was determined to be logistically unfeasible in football, the disruptions were always going to come. It was just a matter of when.
“Those of us in public health are not surprised by this outcome, based on the plan they’re putting in place,” Dr. K.C. Rondello, Clinical Associate Professor, Public Health and Emergency Management at Adelphi University, told Newsday of the NFL’s outbreaks.
“There are just too many unknowns. It was difficult enough to control the NBA when they had the bubble. Now imagine you have even less control than that.”
“When” is now, at a time when COVID-19 cases are spiking again throughout the nation. This week was a sobering one in college football, particularly the SEC, which embraces the slogan, “It just means more.”
Vanderbilt determined it would not have enough players to safely play at Missouri after COVID limited them to 56 scholarship players in a 41-7 loss to South Carolina the previous week.
Florida had to pause all football operations after 21 players tested positive for COVID-19 — days after the Gator coach, Dan Mullen, urged his school to “pack The Swamp” for the now-postponed LSU game. “The Swamp” is the nickname of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, with a capacity of 90,000.
Yes, such lunacy is reflective of a lack of respect for the scourge of COVID that needs to be hammered out of existence. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey sent a memo to coaches and athletic directors last week warning that the season could be derailed without strict adherence to virus protocols.
That echoed the memo that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent to teams, in the wake of the Tennessee Titans outbreak, threatening severe punishment — including fines, loss of draft picks and even forfeiture of games — if protocols were broken. The league is investigating whether the Titans did so by holding unauthorized workouts after their facility was shut down.
This is not to say college football and the NFL won’t find a way through all the COVID-19 disruptions. Certainly, they’re not turning back now, barring a surge of massive multi-team outbreaks, or some sort of catastrophic health outcome. They have too much invested, and too much at stake financially. And too many people who really, really want to watch football.
Let’s hope the participants learn something from MLB, which seemed on the verge of shutting down after the St. Louis Cardinals and especially the Miami Marlins were riddled with COVID cases. The Marlins, with 18 players and two coaches testing positive, mirrors the Titans, who had more than 20 cases to cause the postponement of one game and the shifting of another.
In baseball’s case, it seemed to serve as a wake-up call for everyone to buckle down and take the precautions more seriously. MLB announced last Thursday they had gone 47 consecutive days with no new positive COVID-19 tests. The World Series will start Tuesday.
Of course, baseball is not football. The game itself is more intrusive (though, encouragingly, it doesn’t appear that transmissions have occurred on the field of play), and the number of people involved is much larger.
I think it’s fair to consider if the Pac-12 and Big Ten, so roundly criticized and even ridiculed for remaining shuttered when other conferences sprang back into action, will be vindicated for their cautious approach. They waited until daily, conference-wide rapid testing was available, which should help mitigate breakouts.
The key word is “should.” Anyone who presumes to have COVID conquered is setting themselves up for a rude awakening. We’ve had a lot of those lately in the football world. It’s a pervasive backdrop of anxiety that’s we’re going to have to accept as part of the world of college and pro football in 2020.
(Larry Stone is a sports columnist for The Seattle Times.)
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