The NFL has spent the pandemic proceeding as if football will kick off as normal this fall. Despite the three-day virtual draft, despite the mega-hyped, fixed-date schedule release, despite all the public-facing optimism, the truth is this: The NFL isn’t in charge here. COVID-19 is.
That’s the conclusion of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes for Health and the leading authoritative voice on COVID-19 in America. Speaking to NBC’s Peter King this weekend, Fauci did not mince words: If the country is at the point in September where we are now, there will be no season.
“Right now, if you fast forward, and it is now September,” he said. “The season starts. I say you can’t have a season — it’s impossible. There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do. But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not gonna be the way it is right now.”
The uncertainty that surrounds the pandemic’s spread and a possible second wave is tempering optimism for the 2020 NFL season. No matter how much Tampa Bay fans want to see Tom Brady or Cincinnati fans want to welcome Joe Burrow, the whole NFL is at the mercy of the virus’s spread ... and that’s a subordinate stance the NFL isn’t accustomed to.
One key, Fauci suggests, is that testing will need to be plentiful and frequent. And if testing turns up positive players, the NFL will need to have the strength and ability to quarantine teams. “If you have one outlier [only one player testing positive], I think you might get away,” Fauci said. “But once you wind up having a situation where it looks like it’s spread within a team, you got a real problem. You gotta shut it down.”
That could put NFL teams in the awkward position of having to decide whether to shut down for two entire weeks, postponing or forfeiting games. Imagine the decision to sideline a potentially concussed player, multiplied by orders of magnitude. These will be the decisions facing NFL teams this fall.
The UFC faced such a quandary this past weekend when one fighter and two workers tested positive prior to Saturday night’s UFC 249 event. The weekend went on as scheduled, but it’s too early to tell if the virus infected many more people in the UFC compound.
“If you really want to be in a situation where you want to be absolutely certain, you’d test all the players before the game,” Fauci said. “And you say, ‘Those who are infected: Sorry, you’re sidelined. Those who are free: Get in there and play.’”
Fans in the stands are another complicating factor. NFL fans may want to start steeling themselves for missing out on the in-person experience of games, but Fauci suggested that there could be fans in attendance this season.
“If the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be 6 feet apart,” he said. “I mean, that’s something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection. I keep getting back to that: It’s going to depend.”
Still, King notes, there is reason for optimism, at least regarding the NFL playing its season. For one thing, the league still has months before kickoff, and that gives American manufacturers and government entities time to ramp up testing production. The virus won’t take America by surprise if it returns in the fall, and additional immunization and other protective measures could be in place this fall.
King notes that testing all NFL personnel twice a week would consume about 200,000 tests over the course of a season. Is that 1) feasible, given current testing capabilities, and 2) moral, given that tests used for football players aren’t going to, say, healthcare providers? To Fauci, the answer to the first question takes care of the second.
“You could test millions of people [by August], millions of people,” he said. “But again, we have to make sure that the companies that are doing these tests actually produce them. Which given the country that we have, such a rich country, I would be very surprised if we can’t do that.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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