Sports

Does the NFL’s Omicron Outbreak Response Actually Have Some Merit?

Depleted rosters, postponed games, and more than 100 positive tests have not stopped the league from packing stadiums and loosening some restrictions.

Rodgers in his helmet and frowning
Not particularly worried. (Aaron Rodgers before the Green Bay Packers game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, in Baltimore.) Patrick Smith/Getty Images

If you dream of the NFL playing every day of the week, the coronavirus is making your dreams come true. More than 100 positive tests among players last week forced three games to be rescheduled. By next Monday, Dec. 27, assuming the current schedule holds, you will have been able to watch the NFL on nine of 11 days, including three Saturday games, three Monday games, two Tuesday games, and two Thursday games. Sports, like the rest of society, are getting hammered by the omicron virus.

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The NHL has postponed 39 games. NBA teams are so desperate for players that they are signing replacement ones. And college basketball teams are canceling games and lining up same-day new opponents like they’re playing pick-up.

On Monday, the panelists on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen discussed the outbreaks of the new variant that are tearing through the leagues. A portion of that conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Stefan Fatsis: Let’s start with the NFL. The league is responding to this new phase of the pandemic by loosening its COVID protocols mostly by reducing the frequency with which it tests players. It seems there might be some scientific justification for that approach, maybe. Though a cynic might say that Roger Goodell is just doing what’s necessary to play the games.

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Josh Levin: So, there is this Wall Street Journal piece, Stefan, that talks about, well, do you know the NFL is mostly fully vaccinated and a lot of these players are asymptomatic? So if it’s asymptomatic fully vaccinated players who test positive, and they’re playing against other fully vaccinated players, then what’s the problem? And as you say, there is some scientific basis to that. And yet.

Fatsis: And yet.

Levin: And yet. I don’t know if you guys read this Washington Post piece by Chico Harlan about what’s going on in Denmark. Let me read you a couple lines from this piece: “ ‘The next month will be the hardest period of the pandemic,’ said Tyra Grove Krause, the chief epidemiologist at Denmark’s State Serum Institute.” I just thought you would like to know that there’s a State Serum Institute.

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Fatsis: One more reason to move to Denmark.

Ben Mathis-Lilley: That’s my other T-shirt.

Levin: “This will overwhelm hospitals. I don’t have any doubt about it.” The piece continues:

Before this wave, Denmark had never seen more than 5,000 cases in a day. On Friday it logged more than 11,000. Within a week, in a moderate scenario, case numbers could hit 27,000. And into January? The institute’s estimates climb higher still, off the Y-axis. […] 

Denmark’s projections are taken seriously around the world because they’re informed by an all-encompassing coronavirus surveillance system designed specifically for moments like this, when the nature of the virus is quickly shifting. […] What that data has shown so far is that the hospitalization rate is slightly lower for omicron than for delta. Though because hospitalizations lag behind infections and because omicron hit only recently, scientists say the results will be more meaningful in a couple of weeks. […]

Scientists have also identified how omicron seeded throughout the country, first from travelers inbound from Africa, and then through several superspreader events. A just published paper describes a Christmas party attended by about 150 people. Most were vaccinated. And yet 71 tested positive for omicron.

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It was only after reading the story that I realized how much denial that I’ve been in about how horrible this is going to be. And fair play for me: Who wants to think about the fact that the pandemic is going to get worse again? That’s not something that I want to think, much less say out loud. The second reason that I bring this up is, you know how we would tell that the NFL was taking this seriously and that science had something to do with this? If they were saying absolutely anything about having games without crowds. Because if the players are fully vaccinated, they’re asymptomatic, and the players’ association agrees to do it, then fine, play your football games. But why, if you care about the spread of this pandemic, would you have full crowds indoors in some stadiums?

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Fatsis: Just because the league is 95 percent vaxxed or whatever and the players and most of the staff are young and healthy, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is. It ignores the reality that these guys go out into the world. And it also ignores the reality that players won’t say if they’re symptomatic if the league is moving toward testing only when symptoms exist.

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Mathis-Lilley: I think that the answer to that is just: Where’s the willpower not only within the NFL office but within the rest of society? I think that there is certainly a case to be made that it would make a lot of public health sense to shut down large gatherings right now. But saying that the NFL is specifically responsible or should be responsible for making that move—I guess it ignores the fact that we’re not shutting other things down except preschools, and that there just doesn’t seem to be the willpower for it.

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Levin: Well, the thing that offends though, Ben, is that they’re claiming that all of what they’re doing is guided by science and how smart they’re being. And like the chief medical officer said, we’re at the tip of the spear in seeing some of these changes before they show up in other elements of society, because we do have so many tools at our disposal. We can’t apply 2020 solutions to the 2021 problems that we’re having. It’s just like, they’re talking about how smart they are and how everybody else is not as sophisticated. And, by holding these games and allowing these vaccinated asymptomatic guys to play against each other, we’re just so intelligent. How could you question the sophistication of our analysis? And so I push back at your claim that the NFL does not have any [responsibility]. If they want to admit what they’re doing then that’s fine. But just spare me the bullshit.

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Mathis-Lilley: Sure. Although the NFL is most primarily responsible for its players and its staff members. I think that the people in the stands are also fully informed and possibly reckless, and maybe they’re making poor decisions. But they are pretty much fully informed people making decisions. Whereas what the NFL is in charge of—

Levin: Interesting take that NFL fans are fully informed.

Mathis-Lilley: I mean, we all understand the larger political and cultural context to this. But at the same time, if the NFL is keeping its players and its people safe—and, again, no one is offering the NFL money to make up for its payroll that it’d be losing. We’re not taking the same precautions at a political and national level that would allow the NFL or any other sports institution to shut down and to take that financial hit again. I guess that’s where I come in, as far as not fully blaming them for not just going back to no crowds.

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Fatsis: Well, let’s be clear though. The NFL, because the sizes of these teams are so large, looks really bad when there are COVID outbreaks. I mean, Cleveland, the Rams, Washington—they all had 20 plus players on the COVID list this past week.

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Levin: But under the new rules, Stefan, they would probably have zero players in the COVID list.

Fatsis: That’s right.

Levin: So it’s all fixed. The pandemic’s over.

Fatsis: The rules that apparently look like they do make sense are tweaking the return-to-play requirements, allowing players to get back on the field more quickly if they test positive but they’re asymptomatic. So two negative tests back to back. The NFL is basically saying that the idea of quarantining for 10 days or whatever is old COVID. And now we’re in new COVID, and in new COVID we are freer to get players back on the field even if they test positive. And by the way—and this is the difficult part that I mentioned earlier—the way that they’re going about this gives players the ability, as NFL players will do, to ignore the symptoms of their illnesses and injuries in order for them to play. So when the NFL says we’re going to become way more vigilant about testing for symptoms for colds and whatnot, that assumes that the player is going to be willing to be tested for a cold or whatnot or admit, “I have a stuffy nose or I can’t smell or I have a fever.”

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Levin: It’s strange that treatment for COVID has a shot of Toradol. I don’t know what the explanation is for that, but that’s what the trainer says I should take. So I guess I’m going to take it.

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Sorry to talk about Denmark again, but just one other thing about Denmark.

Fatsis: Never apologize for talking about Denmark, Josh.

Levin: The pandemic there, this latest wave, is seeded by 20-something-year-olds who go out and are maybe not super symptomatic and then just spread it to everyone. And so I think, again—and this is to your point, Ben—just the larger societal attitude, the political, the cultural attitude, the fact [is] that we’re just not in a position to close everything anymore, emotionally or mentally. And whatever the NFL does is perhaps an indicator of where we are. It won’t be the cause of anything maybe. But certainly there’s nobody here, not in the NFL, not in the NBA, taking on any leadership role in the way that, say, the NBA under Adam Silver did in March 2020. Everybody just has their eyes closed and their ears closed and is saying la la la la la and pretending it isn’t happening.

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Fatsis: Aren’t you defining leadership as shutting down? But maybe leadership is saying, hey, this isn’t as much of a concern for our constituents and therefore we are taking this action. Of course the action here that the NFL needs to take is to make sure that its season ends and then they can play the fucking Super Bowl in February.

Mathis-Lilley: Well, yeah. Having been the devil’s advocate here, I think it would make a lot of sense given that, at least in my reading of the literature, we’re going to be doing this every year for a while. Am I right about that? That there’s going to be winter surges of COVID for the foreseeable future. It would make a lot of sense to build that into the schedules for these leagues. Because that way you could shut down the games and you could take a pause of a month or two weeks or whatever is required without having to sacrifice financially and disrupt the lives of your employees and all the people who depend economically on these games and so forth.

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So yeah, I think if there’s a big mistake that I would identify, it’s in building this NBA and NFL schedule to the point that you’re blindsided by the existence of COVID in 2021 and you’re having to play games with replacement players. Instead of having said, “You know what? This virus might come back in the winter as every epidemiologist has said. So maybe let’s put a little slack in this schedule so we still can have our Super Bowl. We still can have our NBA playoffs without having to run out seven guys from the G League and the YMCA to play for the Brooklyn Nets.”

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Fatsis: Right. Which is an issue in obviously the American leagues. And it’s an issue that coaches have begun talking about in the Premier League, which was devastated this week. There were 10 games canceled, five over the weekend. Managers like Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool were very outspoken, are very critical of the sport for taking a sort of blind approach to it and not getting players vaccinated. The Premier League, the vax rates are like, under 70 percent. Liverpool and Klopp have gotten 100 percent vaccination. But the concern there is, as the concern is here always, is that these schedules are really crammed. Klopp talks about, we’ve got to go play next week against a lower-level team in the FA Cup where the vaccination rates are abysmal in the second and third tiers of English football.

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Mathis-Lilley: And I believe, Stefan, was that the team whose captain or coach had been in the hospital for 50 days for COVID and still not gotten the vaccine?

Fatsis: Yeah. That’s who they’re playing next week.

Levin: Stefan, we have enough problems here that I don’t think we need to be going off on long tangents about the vaccination issues in third-tier English football.

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

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