The NFL Plays Fantasy Football During a Pandemic

The league is proceeding as if it’s immune. Seems nice.

Roger Goodell sticks out his tongue while joking around in a crowd of people.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium on Feb. 2 in Miami. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted American life more than any other event in modern history. As the nation prepares to endure this viral blitz, even the most basic routines like feeding oneself or getting exercise must conform to the demands of our new reality. There is one sector of American life, however, that has never existed in reality: the NFL. On Monday, as large portions of the country continued practices of social distancing and sheltering in place, the league kicked its free agency period into gear. Teams were allowed to begin player negotiations, thus making Adam Schefter’s Twitter feed a window into a parallel dimension where COVID-19 doesn’t exist.

Punter news! In the midst of a global pandemic! This is like that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the soldier reaches from his foxhole to touch a butterfly, except the butterfly is Britton Colquitt’s contract extension.

The league’s fantasy football only accelerated as grimmer and grimmer estimates of the outbreak’s timespan continued to emerge. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that experts project coronavirus cases in the state to peak in early May. This intimidating parabola may affect your own plans, but it didn’t stand a chance against Tom Brady. The quarterback announced that his 20-year career with the New England Patriots is over and that his “football journey will take place elsewhere.” The future was looking uncertain enough—now we have to prepare for the very real possibility of seeing Tom Brady in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey.

That the NFL can continue its business as usual is a matter of timing, but the league had already projected itself as an unavoidable part of American life. (For example, it’s expected that everybody watches the Super Bowl, not just football fans.) The NBA, MLB, and March Madness were all upended or postponed by the outbreak, but football kickoff is just far enough away to let us pretend that it will proceed on schedule. Likewise, April’s draft is still supposed to occur on its regular day and time (albeit without a live audience). That’s commissioner Roger Goodell’s plan, at least, so try and spare a grain of salt as you ration your supplies.

The NFL is uniquely positioned to thrive in times of quarantine. Even when things are normal, 99 percent of the league is talk and bluster while the remaining 1 percent is dedicated to gameplay. A study that FiveThirtyEight published in January found that while a typical broadcast of a game runs more than three hours long, only 18 minutes show actual football being played.

Team reshuffling and institutional drama work just fine via telecommunication. Given the otherwise total sports vacuum, this week’s deluge of football news and rumors feels like an all-points bulletin. For the first time since late last week, ESPN has been able to broadcast stories about something other than game cancellations and athletes’ positive COVID-19 tests. Tom Brady’s free agency search alone should be enough to power the network through summer.

The NFL, as usual, gets to be the center of the sports universe. Even its lesser figures bask in this solitary spotlight. Countless Americans weren’t familiar with the questionable decision-making abilities of Houston Texans head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien before, but on Monday, it was one of the only non-COVID topics of nationwide conversation. By trading Houston’s star receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals, he made it so “Texans” and “Bill O’Brien” trended on Twitter above a global pandemic that threatens to cleave modern civilization into two separate eras. Nice going, Bill.

Seeing the NFL plan for an uncertain future with rote certainty is like watching passengers on the Titanic carefully unpack their bags and place their clothes into cabin armoires. It’s oddly … calming? Who knows what the world will look like when or if that first Thursday night game kicks off, but we can rest easy knowing that the Minnesota Vikings and Britton Colquitt have reached a deal. What a relief.

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