Along with millions of other football fans across America and the globe, tens of thousands of Kansas Citians like me feverishly want the National Football League to have a full season this year, despite Covid-19. But as the league’s teams began training camp this week in preparation for the start of the season after Labor Day, I spent several days asking myself, other fans and league health officials if the risks are worth it.
“We thought about this very long and very hard,” Dr. Allen Sills, the N.F.L.’s chief medical officer and a high-ranking member of the White House coronavirus task force, told me. “What can we do to mitigate risk around our sport and around our clubs?”
Earlier this summer, dozens of players — led in part by the Kansas City Chiefs’ biggest offensive and defensive stars, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and defensive back Tyrann Mathieu — launched a #WeWantToPlay campaign on social media. They asserted their eagerness to get back to the game, but demanded more clarity from the league on exactly how it planned to keep N.F.L. players, staff and fans safe.
After a series of virtual negotiations, on July 28 the N.F.L. and its players’ association agreed on a number of protective protocols — which include limiting personnel allowed near team facilities, instituting robust testing of players and limiting or eliminating previously sacred face-to-face activities, such as large team meetings or game film review sessions.
Countless players remain uneasy. Odell Beckham Jr., one of the N.F.L.’s most bankable brand names, said he didn’t think the N.F.L. should come back this year. And though he later recanted the statement, many other stars have opted out of the season, which typically requires thousands of players and personnel intermingling on the field, in news conferences, in offices and in locker rooms for several months, from September through February.
There are few people who would like to see their home team play this fall more than me.
I have family members who are named after Kansas City Chiefs players. In middle school, when the Chiefs would lose, I’d be so upset my girlfriend wouldn’t bother talking to me. In February, after the Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in an epic fourth quarter championship comeback, I took a day off work to fly home for the Super Bowl parade. (And I told my boss that I was, well, taking a break from reporting to fly home for the Super Bowl parade.)
As someone who values sports and sports fandom as an anchor of my community, and as part of my regional identity, it was more than worth it. And the coronavirus outbreak, followed by the multilayered failure to contain its spread, has been the most brutal of comedowns.
With Covid-19 still coursing throughout the country, some marquee college conferences, such as the Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12, have canceled their fall seasons for player safety. And there is a growing chorus questioning the prudence and morality of the N.F.L. season going forward.
“I’m a football guy,” Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University and a die-hard Miami Dolphins fan, told me. “Watching those games on Sunday is like church for me and my dad. I have not missed a game in 25 years. I want this season more than anything right now. But I fear if you do anything outside of a bubble it might get ugly.”
Dr. Binney is referring to the “bubble” format being used in professional basketball and hockey so that the two leagues can play out their seasons in quasi-quarantine. Under bubble protocol, athletes, essential staff and some media are secluded in high-end “villages” away from the rest of society while competing.
The entire N.B.A., for example, is essentially hunkered down in a section of the Walt Disney Resort in Orlando. Early evidence shows this policy has been effective at warding off the virus. The N.B.A. has reported no new cases of the virus inside the bubble since it began testing in early July.
But, for now, the N.F.L.’s measures are not nearly as aggressive as this “bubble” standard.
The N.F.L. has, for instance, decided to allow individual teams to dictate fan attendance. Teams, the league says, should instead consult with their local governments and health officials. This plan doesn’t seem to address the fact that the league’s 32 teams, though they will be flying private, are spread throughout the country.
The Giants and Jets, for instance, will not allow fans at home games. Meanwhile, Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is insisting that some fans will be in attendance at their home games. Most other teams remain in limbo, with no concrete policy in place.
“It’s absurd,” Dr. Binney said. “If you allow fans, you are absolutely creating a public health threat.”
Take a look at the national landscape as the league’s scheduled September start nears: Experts say we have entered a “new phase” of exacerbated spread. The virus is spiking in California, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Missouri — states which host 13 of the N.F.L.’s 32 teams. And it’s also ricocheting back to other previously stabilized states like Massachusetts and New Jersey, also home to the N.F.L. franchises.
Outbreaks, league officials told me, will be unavoidable. To say this while mandating that teams take serious precautions would be one thing. But the Kansas City Chiefs announced yesterday that they would cap fan attendance at games to 22 percent of Arrowhead stadium’s capacity. That’s almost 17,000 people, which is patently insane. And it flies in the face of everything science has told about this virus.
Though it verges on lunacy, I understand this inadvisable urge to congregate. For many, sports are a salve, if not a sanctuary. Professional football began in this country 100 years ago on Aug. 20, 1920, and has now become an American tradition; a ballast for the rhythm of life.
In places from Kansas City down to New Orleans and back up to Philadelphia, the rituals of fandom aren’t a casual extension of our lives. They are a central tenet. Weekend plans and Sunday meals, like Kansas City barbecue, are prepared around it.
Pro football — a melting pot of meritocracy, violence, capitalism, half time shows and athletic excellence — has surpassed baseball, America’s pastime, as the sport at the nation’s heart. According to Gallup, it is more than three times as popular as both basketball and baseball.
Church pastors joke about winding down their sermons early so that they can get their congregants home in time before kickoff. For a nation that has already lost so many lives, and so many of our dearly held routines, the loss of pro football this fall — as prudent as the maximally careful policy of cancellation may be — would be one misery too many.
Jason Wright, the incoming president of the Washington Football Team, formerly known as the Redskins, and the first Black president of a N.F.L. franchise, told “Good Morning America” that it would be “the utmost hubris to say we know it’s all going to go perfectly.” The team, he said earlier, has decided to prohibit fans from games: “I like where we’re at, but we’re going to monitor it day by day.”
For the sake of Kansas Citians, and fans everywhere, I hope others follow suit.
Aaron Randle is a political reporter.
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