Chang W. Lee / New York Times

The Tennessee Titans experienced the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any NFL team, seeing 23 players and staff contract the virus.

October 28, 2020

PICHINI | Shame on the NFL and Shame on Us

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In the aftermath of ESPN’s report that Jacksonville Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead is expected to miss the rest of the season due to COVID-19 complications, it is time for all of us to engage in a serious reexamination of the current NFL season and our pleasure in watching it unfold.

Though this news may have fallen under the radar in the midst of Sunday’s slate of games, it is incredibly alarming. Armstead, a 23-year-old running back in peak physical condition, has suffered from “significant respiratory issues” due to the virus and has already been hospitalized twice.

Armstead was expected to feature as a prominent piece in Jacksonville’s offense. In his stead, undrafted rookie James Robinson has instead filled the void, racking up 606 yards from scrimmage and six total touchdowns in the first seven contests of the season.

Let’s forget the fact that COVID-19 is denying Armstead the chance to thrive at tailback and potentially secure a lucrative payday in the process. The NFL is operating in unsafe conditions, and it is now jeopardizing the life of one of its players.

The decision by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and league leadership to hold games in these conditions with improper regulations and enforcement is irresponsible, and our subsequent enjoyment of NFL action renders us complicit in this mess.

I must admit — I am guilty of this myself. I still look forward to Sunday football, agonize over how my fantasy team is doing, and tune into as many games as I can over the course of a Sunday.

Still, we must be aware of the consequences that come with the 2020 NFL season. The virus does not discriminate in the havoc that it has wreaked. While young athletes are far less likely to suffer severe complications from COVID-19, it can still happen — just look at Armstead.

It would be one thing if the NFL implemented proper safety measures and strictly enforced them, but that has not been the case. COVID-19 continues to make its way across NFL squads and has resulted in the postponement of several contests over the last few weeks.

The Tennessee Titans experienced an outbreak that saw 23 players and staff test positive. The NFL’s penalty against the Titans for their lax enforcement of COVID protocols? A mere $350,000 fine for an organization valued at $2.3 billion.

In addition, multiple head coaches have demonstrated an inability to properly don face masks. Jon Gruden, the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, has been fined numerous times and even sported a pathetic excuse for a face covering against the New England Patriots. While the NFL has levied several fines against these coaches and threatened in-game penalties, full compliance across the league seems like a moonshot.

Prior to the start of training camp, a Reuters report noted that 59 players had already tested positive for COVID-19. Since the start of training camp and the season, that number has only ballooned as dozens of players and staff have tested positive. The addition of players to the COVID/Reserve list has become an almost daily occurrence that we’ve grown numb to.

But we cannot normalize this. Players and staff should not be subjected to the perils of a deadly virus merely so we can enjoy some entertainment over the weekend.

Operating national sports leagues in a bubble environment has proven successful in mitigating COVID-19 spread while still continuing league play. But it is clear that the cost of establishing a bubble is too big of a burden for this money-hungry league to bear. The incidence of COVID-19 in the NFL only figures to increase as the nation sees record numbers in new daily cases.

Sadly, the suffering that Armstead has endured is unlikely to move the needle. The NFL will continue to hold weekly games, fans will still pour into stadiums at a limited capacity and we will all continue to tune in. What will it take for this to change — another severe complication, a death? Either way, we must realize that there is a cost to the NFL’s continued operation in these conditions and our subsequent viewing pleasure.