After the NFL decided to start their season with limited COVID-19 protocols, the league has begun to encounter difficulty with the virus. The Tennessee Titans were the first team to have an outbreak in Week 4, after having minimal cases in the first three weeks. Since then, there has been an abundance of positive COVID-19 tests throughout the league. The highest number of cases have come from the Titans, the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs.
After returning from their game on Sept. 17 in Minnesota, nine Titans players and nine personnel have tested positive. As a result, the Titans Week 4 home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers has been postponed to Week 7. By Oct. 8, five more Titans players and personnel had tested positive. The Patriots have had two positive tests: quarterback Cam Newton and star cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The Chiefs have also had a strength and conditioning coach reportedly test positive.
In July, the NFL sent COVID-19 protocols for the 2020 training camp and the start of the season. The testing process involves the formation of two groups of NFL personnel and players. Tier 1 consists of players and essential personnel who regularly require direct access to players for an extended period of time. Tier 2, on the other hand, includes other essential personnel who may need to be periodically in close proximity to players and other Tier 1 individuals. Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals are both tested daily, except on game days. Off the field, the NFL extended its agreement with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to continue daily COVID-19 testing on non-game days, including during bye weeks. To facilitate daily testing, players and coaches will not be allowed to leave their team’s city during their bye week.
With these recent outbreaks, the NFL has been forced to reconsider its approach to the pandemic. The NFL sent out a memo to all 32 teams on Oct. 5 detailing new additions to the league’s COVID-19 protocols. The new rules focus on altering the free-agent process, banning off-site team facility gatherings and puts in place a new video system that will monitor the entire league. “All staff members and players [must] wear PPE [personal protective equipment] while in a club facility and on travel at all times,” the league explained.
The NFL has also issued new punitive measures for teams that violate these protocols, including potential game forfeitures. “Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline, including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of the game,” the memo stated. Additionally, the NFL issued strict recommendations for team meetings such as holding all meetings virtually, wearing masks during practices and walkthroughs and reducing time spent in locker rooms.
The changes may sound simple, but certain habits are hard for players to break. Postgame greetings between opposing players are so commonplace that players often forget social distancing protocols. Images of Gilmore and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes embracing after a game went viral on social media following their Week 3 matchup. Players have been trying to avoid postgame interactions this season, and Mahomes later called his contact with Gilmore a lapse in judgment. Mahomes says he knew playing this season would be a challenge amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “We knew that coming into the season,” Mahomes told NFL.com on Wednesday. “If you thought you were going to go through the entire season and no one was going to test positive, then you had a little bit of false hope.”
Some players, however, don’t seem as worried about the pandemic. Kirk Cousins, quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, had an unreasonable take on his strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. In an appearance on Spotify’s 10 Questions with Kyle Brandt in July, Cousins admitted that, although he will follow the NFL’s protocols, his personal level of concern is about “0.000001” out of 10. “If I get it, I’m gonna ride it out,” he said. “I’m gonna let nature do its course. Survival of the fittest kind of an approach: If it knocks me out, it knocks me out. … If I die, I die. I kind of have peace about that.” Cousins later attempted to clarify his comments, telling the media in a press conference that while “the virus does not give me a great amount of personal fear, there’s still great reason for me to engage [in the NFL’s protocols].”
The NFL and NFLPA are currently investigating whether a number of teams have violated the league’s original COVID-19 protocols, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “This isn’t a failure of the protocols; it is a failure to follow the protocols,” an anonymous source said. Despite Tennessee’s adamant statements that they have obeyed every rule, the league has asked the team to turn over multiple videotapes of team activities to determine the root of the outbreak. The Las Vegas Raiders are also under NFL investigation for allowing an unauthorized team employee to evade security checkpoints and enter the locker room. The Raiders have already been heavily fined for not adhering to COVID-19 protocols: Head coach Jon Gruden was hit with a $100,000 fine for not wearing a face mask on the sidelines of a Week 2 matchup against the Saints. Gruden joins a list of head coaches across the league, including Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers, Vic Fangio of the Denver Broncos and Pete Caroll of the Seattle Seahawks, who have also been fined, according to NPR.
Besides managing cases, the NFL found its hands full with rescheduling and placing further restrictions on teams — some of the most dramatic changes coming from this week alone. The changes to the schedules of 11 teams has created some challenging travel plans: The New York Jets will have to fly across the country three times in five weeks, while the Patriots and the Broncos have both lost their bye weeks and the Baltimore Ravens will have to play five straight games with no break.
If the increase in outbreaks continues, the NFL may be forced to shorten their season according to numerous analysts. The Pro Bowl was cancelled Wednesday, and sources say it’s likely that more cancellations will come down the line.