Sports

The NFL Won

No one died. No games were canceled. Hooray?

Roger Goodell yukking it up with some NFL referees.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, happy in 2020, as ever. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The NFL did what it set out to do. As of Sunday, it will have completed every piece of a football season. Technically.

Ten years from now, if an alien inspects the season-by-season results on Pro Football Reference, it might be unable to guess which season was conducted amid a global pandemic, presidential coup attempt, massive civil unrest of every kind, and that week when GameStop was the most important company on Earth.

On paper, this NFL season looks completely normal. And it was normal, wasn’t it? The NFL had some Adversity to Overcome, but it all turned out great, yes? It all felt great and typical.

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As it approaches Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL is enjoying two simple talking points: All its games were played, and—as far as we know—nobody directly affiliated with the league died because of them. On top of that—thanks to the NFL’s fellow corporate giants calculating that social justice is a more brand-friendly concept than social injustice—the Super Bowl telecast will likely be full of ads declaring that companies agree with the league that racism is bad, aligning football’s biggest day with the right side of history.

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What a deal. Everything’s coming up NFL.

Football made a lot of people happy. People needed to feel happy. Sure, yes, a Browns-Jets game hardly lifts the national mood. But the NFL will nevertheless frame its 2020 season as a balm for the American psyche, whether that’s the whole truth or not. The NFL knows that the final moments of the Super Bowl are what we’ll remember most.

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Because every pandemic day feels like a thousand years, you have to squint and look up at the sky to even remember that time the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens played their Thanksgiving game on the following Wednesday afternoon, due to rampant COVID infections. This was after the Tennessee Titans suffered the season’s worst COVID outbreak only to go full pro wrestling heel, turning valid concerns about the team’s safety into They Don’t Believe In Us fodder. We saw the Cleveland Browns play without any wide receivers, the Denver Broncos without any quarterbacks, the New Orleans Saints without any running backs, and the Detroit Lions and the Browns again without head coaches, because the games absolutely had to be played.

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Was all this worth it? Was football worth the risks piled on top of all the normal football risks we’ve taken for granted? The 2020 season made the NFL more money than not playing football would have, and it’s unlikely to cost the NFL in civil payouts in the future, so Roger Goodell and the 32 franchise owners would surely say yes.

But to have a better sense of whether the season was a total success, we need to know more about the impact of COVID-19 on the league. For instance: Hundreds of NFL players and staffers tested positive for COVID, 329 of them between August and Thanksgiving alone, including 20 people within that span whom the NFL itself identified as high-risk. Fortunately, they did all survive, demonstrating the benefits of a robust contact-tracing program enforced by an institution with a huge financial stake in plowing through a pandemic.

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But no one will ever know how many fans spread infections inside or around NFL stadiums, and no one will ever know the butterfly effects of those interactions. Data suggest safety guidelines have been reasonably effective within stadiums themselves, but who’s to say what happened at nearby tailgates and bars? Similarly, researchers still do not know the long-term effects of the disease. But whatever the virus’ consequences on the league, its employees, and fans turn out to be, it’s extremely likely that the NFL will never answer for them.

Why’d the NFL do all that? Money, and because it didn’t want the world to know what it feels like to have a fall weekend without football. So, in a year when nobody got what they wanted, the NFL pretty much did. If the league wants to frame this as a triumph of resilience, I might for a moment be too wearied by 2020 and its almost-as-shitty sequel year to call it hardheaded, money-above-all-else luck. But fine. You did it, NFL.

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And what of the league avoiding a mass player and public backlash during an unprecedented racial justice movement? In 2020, the league slapped END RACISM on the field and otherwise continued its strategy of doing whatever might anger the fewest people on any given day. If the NFL hadn’t just spent years ostracizing Colin Kaepernick, it could’ve spent the protest-heavy summer boasting something like a leadership position among corporate giants. If it hadn’t spent years denying nonwhite coaches and general managers an equal shot at leadership, it might have been acting from a less defensive crouch. Instead, the best the league could offer was sorta admitting—after the sands had shifted—that it had all along been following whichever crowd was loudest at the time. And from a PR perspective … it kind of worked!

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The league’s new racial consciousness felt perfunctory through and through, and its problems with racial inequity remain. But that bare-minimum effort kept the NFL from being seen as one of 2020’s biggest villains, allowing the focus to remain on the games (that absolutely had to be played).

This weekend, the league will likely oversee a logistically sound Super Bowl peppered with commercials featuring corporate-friendly anti-racist messaging. The 7,500 vaccinated essential workers who’ve been given free tickets will likely be showcased throughout the night, inoculating the league against accusations that the Super Bowl will be a superspreader event. (Two Kansas City Chiefs players were placed on the COVID-19 list as close contacts just this week, but they still might end up playing in the big game.*) And honestly, after we’ve slogged through a full, completed season, it would be asking a lot to demand that everyone at home care as much about COVID-related logistics as about the NFL’s greatest superstar passing the torch to a guy who could end up breaking all his records.

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When it’s all over, there won’t even be any time to reflect. The Houston Texans, by being dumb enough to piss off star quarterback Deshaun Watson, have gifted the league a flowing segue into the eternal Next Season. This spring’s NFL draft, free agency, training camp, the 2021 season openers—they all must go on, and so they will go on.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Correction, Feb. 8, 2021: Due to an editor error, this piece originally misstated that two Chiefs players tested positive for COVID-19 the week of the Super Bowl. After a close contact tested positive, both players were placed on the game’s COVID list pending negative tests. Both wound up testing negative and clearing the protocol to play.

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