When it comes to American professional sports, the NFL is usually the top dog when it comes to both financial might and pop-cultural presence. While that usually lets the league do more or less anything it wants, 2020 has been a bit different. COVID-19 spreads indiscriminately, undeterred by fame, fortune, or any other social markers.
Although the NFL has had some COVID scares throughout the season, things have truly taken a turn for the worst during Week 12. Unfortunately for Roger Goodell and football fans everywhere, it seems like we’re staring down the barrel of an inescapable reality: the league is in the midst of a coronavirus crisis.
The NFL made some changes to cope with the realities of COVID-19
Unlike the NBA, which was in the midst of the regular season when COVID-19 reached the United States, the NFL had time on its side. Even in the offseason, though, the league still had to make some changes.
The first major casualty was the 2020 NFL draft. While the in-person event was supposed to take over the Las Vegas strip in a celebration of all things football, physical distancing put an end to that idea; instead, things moved online with Roger Goodell presiding over a virtual ceremony.
As the season got closer, though, more and more concessions needed to be made. Players were given an opportunity to opt-out of the 2020 campaign; months later, some teams are still taking the field in empty, or depending on the location, partially-empty stadiums. Preseason games also got the ax, even if no one really missed them.
COVID-19 altered the NFL’s Thanksgiving plan
While Thanksgiving is usually a day for family gatherings and celebrations, COVID-19 forced people around the country to change their plans. Even the NFL had to call a last-minute audible.
Since 2006, the NFL’s Thanksgiving slate has featured three games; usually, the Lions play the early game, the Cowboys slot into the middle spot, with a primetime game wrapping up the festivities. This year, the nightcap—the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers—looked like the marquee attraction; those two teams, however, never hit the field.
On the day before Thanksgiving, the NFL pulled the plug due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Ravens’ ranks. The game is now set to be played on Tuesday, December 1, but even if that happens, Baltimore won’t be at full strength.
Saturday night’s news deepened the COVID-19 crisis
On paper, one postponed game and a growing list of positive tests is already bad news for the NFL. On Saturday, though, things got even worse.
Due to their own positive test and subsequent contract tracing, the Denver Broncos will be without a quarterback for Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints; according to ProFootballTalk, the organization was desperate enough to ask the NFL if they’d be allowed to have members of the coaching staff take the field. The league, for the record, said no, and Denver seems set to start a practice squad receiver under center.
The San Francisco 49ers will also have their own issues. Santa Clara Country, where the team plays its home games, is facing new COVID-19 restrictions; as explained by CBS Sports, sports games are temporarily banned and anyone traveling from more than 150 miles away will have to quarantine. That seems to spell doom for the Niners game against the Buffalo Bills on December 7 and the Washington Football Team on December 13.
At this point, the NFL season could be in jeopardy
Based on everything else we’ve seen from professional sports, the NFL will find some way to resolve the situation; the Broncos will probably have to suffer through Sunday’s game, the 49ers will find a home at some other stadium, and the Ravens and Steelers will hit the field at some point. With all of that being said, though, the NFL season is getting dangerously close to farce.
Let’s assume that the NFL is even able to finish the season, which, at this point, isn’t a forgone conclusion. While legitimacy is a personal judgment, sports fans generally have a pretty good handle on who ‘deserves’ to win a given game; COVID-19, however, has thrown that into disarray.
What if the Baltimore Ravens, for example, lose their game without Lamar Jackson, and that costs them a playoff berth? Say the 49ers have to play their home games in the Midwest, giving their opponents easier travel? While there’s nothing technically unfair about those scenarios, they just feel wrong. There’s also the issue of health and safety, which matter more than any football game.
Unless things truly collapses, the NFL will keep powering through and trying to conduct business as usual. Week 12, however, has pushed the league pretty close to a breaking point.