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Column: Who in the NFL will have the courage to say COVID’s spread has gone too far?

NFL officials huddle during the second half between the Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys.
NFL officials huddle during the second half between the Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday in Baltimore.
(Terrance Williams / Associated Press)

It’s a small miracle this NFL season has made it to Week 14 without a cancellation or forfeit.

Oh, we’ve come close, with Dez Bryant being pulled from the field minutes before Tuesday’s Dallas Cowboys-Baltimore Raven kickoff, the latest domino in a game of COVID-19 Dominoes that traces to a Ravens outbreak two weeks ago, which brought the larger NFL schedule to the brink of disaster.

The whack-a-mole approach to COVID-19 the league has employed— a single game being rescheduled three times, the insistence on playing another despite the quarantining of one team’s entire quarterback depth chart, talks of having to create an 18th week of the regular season to accommodate future postponements — was detailed by my colleague Sam Farmer earlier this week.

It might not be the most effective approach, but it is entertaining.

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Who knew NFL games could be played on a Wednesday afternoon? I sure didn’t.

The NFL’s decision to not keep players in a bubble like the NBA and NHL has hurt its efforts to stop COVID-19 transmission, experts say.

But as happy as I am to see football — especially with the Rams defense offering up visions of a return trip to the Super Bowl — I find myself pondering a question posed by Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

(In full disclosure, that line also guides my Amazon purchases.)

Once again, the NFL offers a mirror for society to take a good hard look at itself and once again we’ve demonstrated that we’d rather not. Careful reflection has never guided our responses to, or engagement with, the hard NFL issues of the day, such as the league’s consistently poor handling of domestic violence incidents. Or the CTE conversation, or Colin Kaepernick’s blackballing or clumsy policies regarding the national anthem protests.

Why should a public health crisis, even the most deadly of our lifetimes, be any different?

When I was younger, more idealistic, this would have been more disappointing. Now that I have enough gray hair to dye, I understand that sometimes people just want what they want, regardless of cost, and there will always be someone or something to provide them succor. Oh, we’ll tweet angrily, but tonight it’s Joe and Troy with Rams-Patriots on Fox. Fantasy lineups due by 5:20.

On Tuesday, as Bryant was complaining about missing the game because of his COVID diagnosis, more Americans died from the virus (2,597) than were killed at Pearl Harbor (2,403). On the same day, we learned the Los Angeles Dodgers lost two scouts to the virus, 72-year-old Lon Joyce and 31-year-old Jairo Castillo, a sobering rebuke to all of you who thought some of us went too hard on Justin Turner for celebrating with his teammates on the field after his positive diagnosis late in Game 6 of the World Series.

NFL stars may be worshipped but they aren’t gods. They contract and spread the coronavirus like everyone else. Not only are they potentially risking their lives, so are all of the people connected to the sport, non-uniformed employees such as Joyce and Castillo. As much as I love the games, I do wonder what’s the cut-off point for infections before the season is suspended or shut down.

As much as I love the games, I do wonder what’s the cut-off point for infections before the season is suspended or shut down altogether.

You know, “could we?” versus “should we?”.

“There are no easy solutions to beating this virus,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told The Times this week. “We have done everything we can to mitigate the risk to our members, their families and everyone in the NFL. We have followed the advice of the best experts in the world on when to play and when to reschedule and up to this point our positivity rate has remained far below city, state and national averages.

“We are in no way guaranteed to finish the season given the weeks to go before completion and the rising rates of community infection. This will be a complete success only if we remain vigilant, flexible and willing to make the necessary adjustments to keep our membership safe from uncontrolled outbreaks.”

The truth is most of us are doing the best we can during an unprecedented time, the NFL included. And considering the transmission rate is lower for the league than outside of it, Goodell and company merit some praise.

But we see the trouble brewing, don’t we? The growing number of closed-down facilities, games shuffled further back forcing other games to be shuffled back, players pulled before kickoff. Even if the season pushes through without cancellations, will it come without greater consequences, short-term ones like hospitalizations and longer-term ones such as myocarditis?

If it gets worse in the coming weeks, or during the postseason, who will have the courage to say enough is enough?

The miracle isn’t that the NFL keeps on trucking despite the risks. The miracle will be a Voice That Matters that calls for a stoppage in play because the risk has become too great.


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