Sports

How Did the NFL Get Into This Mess?

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the league, but in many ways, it’s business as usual.

Kendall Hinton flails and passes as a Saint player runs up to tackle him.
Kendall Hinton, a practice squad wide receiver who was pulled up to quarterback because all the Broncos other available quarterbacks were under quarantine, passes under pressure against the Saints in Denver on Nov. 29. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

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Bomani Jones says it’s kind of eerie watching NFL games this year. The anthem is sung remotely, the crowd noise is canned, and the stadiums aren’t even close to full. Jones reports on all this for ESPN. Instead of fans, football’s television co-star this season is COVID-19, because the coronavirus is also in these stadiums—silent, invisible, but right there on the field. All 32 teams have suspended players for testing positive for the coronavirus, but not a single game has been canceled. Not yet anyway.  “We need football because football has a much more religious place in this society than any other sports do,” Jones said. “And so they’re like, the church is open, thank God.”

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But things aren’t going smoothly. When I look at the chaos in professional football over the past few weeks, I see failure—needless infections, risk after pointless risk. But millions of Americans are still tuning in. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jones about why the NFL is forging on and whose fault it is that the coronavirus is raging through the league. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: If you could describe the NFL in one word right now, what word would you use?

Bomani Jones: I would say the NFL is confusing. What I don’t know, though, is whether or not the NFL is confused. And I think that’s the biggest problem that they’ve had so far is that none of their actions seem to indicate that there’s a larger plan.

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The NBA, they had a bubble, but they also had a hundred-something-page plan and they have a whole new hundred-something-page plan for this new season coming up. Does the NFL have anything like that?

I don’t think anybody actually fully really knows. And they are so arrogant that they don’t feel like they’ve got to tell anybody about these things. And the truth is, they’re right.

Because people just love the game so much. 

If you put the football game on, people are going to watch it. That awful Dallas–Washington game on Thanksgiving got thirtysomething million viewers. I don’t care how popular you think the Cowboys are, that’s bad football, and they still got 30 million people to watch it.

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Why didn’t the NFL try to bubble like the NBA did?

Bubbling is a horrible scientific experiment when you stop and think about it. It’s not simply that you’re in this place and nobody else can get in. For the most part, they just have to be in their rooms all the time. It is an incredibly solitary experience. And as much as maybe the players don’t even necessarily want a bubble for themselves. Does your wife want you to be in a bubble? Do your kids want you to be in a bubble? These are still people with their own lives. And I don’t know how many people would be willing to go into a bubble for their jobs. We just have a different expectation of these guys.

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For the NFL, the dudes make a lot of money in the eyes of the general public. The general public believes that they should be willing to play no matter what. Think about how many unsafe conditions that generally happen in football that people think these guys are supposed to play through.

I just think about the head injuries. We were talking about those for years.

Those dudes had to be told not to play through head injuries. That’s how badly these dudes want to play football. But they always have to fight against the idea that people think that they are greedy. When the players came out and said we want to play, it was effective because it centered around the idea that players actually want to play as opposed to them being greedy. I also think it undercut the subversive nature of what I thought was necessary in these times, which is to insure and demand that the health of the players is paramount in this rather than simply trying to get these games played. And I don’t think that the health of the players has been deemed paramount at this point.

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As outbreaks have spread throughout the season, the NFL has issued fines, postponed games—the Baltimore Ravens played on a Wednesday afternoon last week, only the second time football’s been played on a Wednesday since 1949—and forced the Denver Broncos to pull up a wide receiver from their practice squad to play quarterback because all of their other options where under quarantine.

How do you think about this situation? The NFL could have made the decision to call off the game, wait for folks to be out of their quarantine, but they didn’t. The way one of the writers at Slate put it was it was kind of like if your parent catches you smoking a cigarette and then they make you smoke the whole pack. It was punishment, like, you guys messed up and now you’ve got to play your game anyway.

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Just so people understand, who did the Broncos have at quarterback? A gentleman named Kendall Hinton, who was an all-state high school quarterback and played some quarterback in college, but was on the practice squad, a wide receiver, because he’s just not good enough to play quarterback. And a dude that had no practices had to go play quarterback.

And it went about as well as you’d expect.

Yeah, it did. You know what, props to him for completing a pass. I also think it’s worth noting that Vic Fangio, the head coach of the Denver Broncos, in his press conference, chastised the quarterbacks for their irresponsibility. He seemed to be salty with them, that it got them into that situation.

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So I think in one part it might have been a punishment. I also think, though, that the other part of it is this is football. People miss games because they physically can’t play all the time. This is just a different kind of physically can’t play.

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Who is this messy system good for at this point? The NFL doesn’t look great. And then the individual players and coaches don’t look great either because the NFL keeps pointing the finger at them and saying, Look at these guys misbehaving.

Nobody looks good, and the players resent the idea of being blamed. We have a very gray ethical area in this time of COVID, which is when it is or is not appropriate to blame somebody for catching it. And so the way the league is looking at it is if you adhere to the protocols, you will be fine. Now, that’s not necessarily true. But as soon as they find out that you did not adhere to the protocols, now it becomes your fault.

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Something that was an inflection point for baseball was when the team in Cleveland wound up having their issue where they had two guys who they found out were out. They caught it. They lied and said that they had not been out. I think they wound up trading both of those dudes because they lost the trust of the clubhouse. The players were just like, Yo, you’re messing this up for everybody. And one of those guys was really good, but they had to get him out of there because he just could not be a member of that team anymore. And so I think for baseball, the big thing that happened was their enforcement mechanism came from the players. And then once that happened, you had a much better chance of keeping that thing under control.

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A lot of people are saying the NFL should shut it down for a week or two or something. What you’re saying is that you think instead the NFL may be at this inflection point where enough has gone wrong that the players and the teams will start cracking down?

I also ask this question: Shut it down and then what is that like? COVID isn’t getting better out here. Is the shutdown that people talk about really going to improve the situation enough to make it worth it for them to do this? And again, keep in mind: Everybody has a financial incentive to do as best as they can in order to keep this thing going.

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But I guess the nuts part to me is like my kids still aren’t in full-time school. So it’s crazy to me that we’re having a football season where the players are at more risk. The people watching the games are at more risk. It just seems completely out of proportion.

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I think that we have a tendency to look at it as coming to get the money. We say that all of this is about money. But when we say that, we are implying a certain level of greed on behalf of those people who want this money. And I just don’t think it’s as simple as being greedy as much as I really don’t know what else we think everybody’s supposed to do. Even if you think these guys make a lot of money, most of them don’t have a lot of money. The median salary in the NFL is something like $830,000. And this is in a league where the minimum is around $500,000.

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That sounds like a lot to me. 

It does sound like a lot until you think about the fact that this is money the guys need to be keeping for the rest of their lives. They are not guaranteed to still be making a wage in their 40s, or even in their late 20s.

How long is the average career?

Three years. On top of having to save it, chances are, no matter who you are, some of your money is going to family and other people that need to be taken care of. There’s a percentage that’s going to your agent. There’s a good chance in the off-season there’s a level of training and things that you are going to have to invest in yourself in order to stay in the league in the first place. All of a sudden that $500,000 starts getting whittled down, whittled down, whittled down. And then you add to that that these are people in their 20s. They’re not necessarily inclined to make the most responsible decisions with money. That is not a person that can necessarily afford to go a whole year without a paycheck, especially given that when the last season ended, nobody expected it was going to be a pandemic. This is not something that people had planned for. And so guys needed that money.

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Something that stands out to me looking at all the coverage of what’s happening with the NFL is that we’re spending a lot of time talking about the logistical chaos, because it’s what we’re all seeing. But the stories of players and coaches getting sick, I don’t feel like we’re hearing those as much. One of my colleagues here, Joel Anderson, pointed out that the Jaguars have this running back, Ryquell Armstead, who’s been hospitalized twice with COVID. If we were paying more attention to those people, would the conversation shift?

We basically work with the same pattern on all of these cases: A positive test comes in. That person always is either asymptomatic or has mild symptoms, because they just found out. So they’re catching it early and we find out about it when they don’t really exhibit symptoms, and then we don’t come back again until they test negative. We ask no questions in between, and nobody’s asking them how they felt or any of that stuff. And to be fair, football players aren’t inclined to tell you how bad they feel ever. That’s just not how they’re conditioned. And so we have no idea who is still out here struggling. Cam Newton, for example: I think he’s playing poorly, largely because his foot is not good. But how much of that has to do with COVID? That dude is never going to tell you. Say what you want about Cam Newton, he ain’t never blamed anything on anybody else about his performance ever in his football career. Those guys have to be willing to tell what these effects are. And there aren’t that many of them who are going to be willing to do it

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As a fan and as a journalist, when you look at it, is all this worth it?

I got to acknowledge the self-interest that I have in this two. Man, if they had not played these football games, at my company, it would have been a bloodbath. If college football had not played this year, it would have been colossally detrimental to the bottom line of where I work, because that’s the basis of where the money comes in here. The effects of these billion-dollar industries shutting down necessitated that they had to give it a go.

It has felt, in a lot of ways, like a business-as-usual football season, and the NFL has in a lot of ways just kind of felt like what football typically is: a bizarre war of attrition. Maybe part of the way to look at it is if my conscience is going to kick in about watching NFL football—it may kick in at some point—that would have happened a hell of a lot sooner than this.

What are the chances you think there’s going to a Super Bowl this year?

One hundred percent.

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