No Bubble, More Problems: Why the NFL Season Is Now In Jeopardy

After the National Football League successfully completed three weeks of competition without incident amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this past week brought some bad news for the league. Last Tuesday, the NFL experienced a wave of positive COVID-19 tests. Three players and five personnel for the Tennessee Titans tested positive, forcing the team and their most recent opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, to shut down football operations for the week. As a result, Tennessee’s week four game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed. In addition, New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive on Saturday, forcing the league to postpone the Patriots-Chiefs matchup as well. 

In stark contrast, the National Basketball Association has done an exceptional job of containing the virus throughout their season in their Orlando bubble. No positive tests have been recorded since establishing the bubble, and with the NBA Finals nearing completion, it seems unlikely that any will be. Unlike many professional sports leagues during this time, the NBA has managed to thrive. 

The markedly different outcomes for these leagues prove that without a bubble system in place, it is impossible to truly keep pro players and staff safe — even with every player and staff member following protocols as strictly as they can. When players and staff have to travel for games, stay in hotels, or get food from the outside world, positive tests are inevitable.

The potential implications of the NFL’S outbreak rest entirely on the planning — or lack thereof — from NFL leadership going into the 2020 season. Going into training camp, there was still no league-wide plan for COVID-19 protocols during team activities. Now, the NFL is coming up with containment strategies on the fly in a desperate attempt to save the season. 

On Monday, Oct. 5, the NFL announced that teams found in violation of COVID-19 protocols could possibly have to forfeit games should an outbreak happen as a result of the violations. This strict legislation was the result of an unprepared scramble rather than a proactive approach, made in direct response to Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller and his teammates violating COVID-19 protocols by not wearing masks at a charity event. This issue reflects the example set by the league through their laissez-faire attitude towards COVID-19 protocols. NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell has made it clear that looking good in the eye of the public is the number one priority — with player and personnel safety taking a back seat. 

It is clear the NFL remains committed to making money, even at the cost of a blatant disregard for safety and potentially disrupting the season. Some teams have already started to allow fans back into stadiums for games on a limited basis. Furthermore, masks are still not required during games while on the field, even though football helmets and visors do next to nothing for preventing the transmission of respiratory particles. 

By contrast, the NBA took the time to implement a carefully-formulated, comprehensive plan to help keep the league safe. Leaders considered contingencies ahead of time, and as a result the league managed to keep players healthy throughout their season. 

No matter what changes the NFL implements at this point in time, it is simply too late to reach the same level of safety for players as the NBA. Unless they implement a bubble system soon, the completion of the 2020 NFL season will depend on sheer luck.