It’s been almost two months since we’ve had sports in the United States. Nothing like this has ever happened before: even during World War II, when many gifted athletes had joined the service, sports continued, with even FDR himself explaining that they had a role in boosting public morale. But you can’t defeat a pandemic by coming together—despite the easing of social distancing measures across Texas, projections from leading epidemiologists make clear that, until much more robust testing and contact tracing programs are developed, staying away from one another is still the best tool we have to slow the virus’s spread.
Maybe those programs will exist in the fall, but given supply shortages and a lack of federal coordination, there’s no reason to be confident that they will. And yet the NFL announced its regular season schedule this week anyway, promising to open the season with the Houston Texans visiting Kansas City to play the defending Super Bowl champions, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, on September 10. The rest of the season is scheduled to begin three days later, with the Sunday games headlined by the Dallas Cowboys, who are slated to travel to California to take on the Los Angeles Rams.
The NFL’s decision to not just release a schedule amid the COVID-19 crisis, but to treat the unveiling as a spectacle—with a three-hour ESPN special highlighting key matchups—sends a strong message that the league, unlike the NBA or MLB, isn’t taking a wait-and-see approach to games: it’s proceeding as though the next several months will go as planned. Some teams, like the New York Jets, are limiting single-game ticket sales (while still collecting fees from season ticket holders)—but if you want to buy a ticket to see the Texans or the Cowboys play at home this fall, both teams are happy to take your money.
The lack of coordinated federal rules around reopening puts the NFL in an unusual spot, though. There are a huge number of variables at play here that make the safety of opening stadiums to fans a big question mark—but if things do proceed the way they are going now, with some states instituting lax public safety measures and some states enforcing rigorous ones, it’ll create competitive challenges we’ve never seen before. California governor Gavin Newsom said, as the schedule was released, that it is difficult to imagine fans in stadiums until a vaccine is in place, which is highly unlikely to happen by September. But if the Cowboys and Texans can play their home games in front of 100,000 screaming fans, while the Rams, Chargers, and 49ers host their eight home games in empty stadiums, it’ll be hard for teams to compete if they’re based in states like California (or, presumably, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, or other states that have been more cautious about loosening safety restrictions). For the NFL, which takes the principle of “parity” seriously to ensure that any team is capable of winning on any given Sunday, giving a massive competitive advantage to teams that play in states with more relaxed safety measures would be destabilizing.
Assuming that the biggest issue will be a competitive one, though, also presumes that the situation in September will look the way that it does now. All major models project that, by the end of May, we will see between 18,000 and 36,000 additional deaths in the United States as the virus spreads. That could prove disruptive to plans to play football in the fall, if officials call for new waves of lockdown measures, as projections from the University of Texas have forecasted. Who knows what things will look like in four months?
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that the release of the schedule was made “with hope and optimism,” and acknowledged that the league was “prepared to make adjustments as necessary,” depending on how things look in the fall. But there’s also a huge amount of money on the line for the NFL, which means that adjustments that involve canceling games will be hard for the league’s owners to stomach. That’s especially true if it ends up being the only football that’s played in the fall.
San Antonio ISD superintendent Pedro Martinez said earlier this week that he is skeptical that there’ll be any contact sports played this fall. Other officials publicly insist that they’re planning for high school football, but a number of coaches and athletics directors who spoke to the Dallas Morning News this week expressed concern that there’s no clear plan for how things will proceed. The NCAA, which canceled the billion-dollar enterprise that is March Madness at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., certainly hopes to play college football in the coming school year—but with a huge number of universities, each with their own safety standards and bound by various state regulations, the possibility that we’ll see a shortened or delayed season is real.
The NFL has it easier by comparison: there are only 32 teams, and not hundreds or thousands of them, which gives the league more control over what happens. Maybe the NFL would be better off sequestering players and holding games on an island somewhere. Losing ticket revenue would hurt, but even playing games in empty stadiums on Fridays and Saturdays, when the league is normally barred from playing to avoid competing with high school and college football, would help make up for it. The league could sell the TV rights to those games for a whole lot of money—if not to broadcast networks facing an advertising slowdown, then certainly in the highly competitive streaming market, where exclusive NFL rights would represent a lot of market share to companies like Amazon, Apple, or Disney/ESPN.
None of this addresses the safety concerns of playing football in the fall, of course. The NFL is notorious for creating incentives for players to hide their health issues and get back on the field. Even if the league is able to test players regularly, say a star player tests positive before a game against a division rival—what kind of pressure will he be under to play, COVID or no? How do you sack a quarterback from six feet away?
In a memo leaked on Wednesday, Goodell instructed teams not to comment on these issues—but a league that has to advise officials not to speculate is one that knows these questions exist, that there are no answers for them yet, and that no one is confident about what the future will look like. There are a lot of uncertainties about whether it will be possible to play football this fall (or do a whole lot of other things, for that matter) that the NFL is trying to push out of the narrative through sheer force of will. Right now, all we really know is that they put a bunch of teams’ names on a calendar for the fall. What happens when those days get here is a lot harder to know.