NFL encounters COVID-19 testing challenges

NFL encounters COVID-19 testing challenges

Photo Credits: AGGIE FILE

With COVID-19 cases going up in the NFL, the pressure is on

The 2020 NFL season has been anything but normal thus far. After starting out the season with three straight weeks of uninterrupted football, it seemed like even with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the league would be able to make it work. They were already ahead of their baseball counterparts, who encountered a rapid team spread less than a week after they began their season in late July. Aside from a couple players testing positive before Week 3, there had been a clean slate and no mass spread that had deterred the season. But, the end of the honeymoon phase led the NFL into a rude awakening, and they will now try to maneuver around the damage that continues to occur. 

Following their Week 3 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 26, the Tennessee Titans suffered a massive blow, as a total of 16 members of the organization tested positive for COVID-19. It is uncertain where the spread began, but none of the Vikings players or staff tested positive for the virus after their game with the Titans. As the list of positives grew to 19, and the NFL was forced to move the Titans’ scheduled game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4 to Week 7 (Oct. 25). This forced both teams into an unexpected bye week, with hopes to hold their Week 5 game as scheduled. 

With the team currently closing all facilities, they were forced to move everything remotely and over online video chats. The unexpected bye week and suspension of all activities however, brought some reckless actions by some players, as a group of 15 gathered at a nearby high school to workout, even after the spread. The team came under fire, as this irresponsible act came with the possibility of endangering even more individuals. 

“Guys just don’t work out for fun this is for their [livelihood], their family, their opportunity,” tweeted Titans’ offensive lineman Roger Saffold in response to the reports of the unauthorized workout. “Say what you want but I’m standing up for my team always.”

While Saffold’s argument is understandable and players in the workout tests came back negative, the actions could be seen as dangerous given the circumstances surrounding the team. This coupled with an NFL investigation into the spread could lead the Titans into never before seen punishments by the league. 

“The Titans already faced a potentially significant punishment for alleged protocol breaches that fueled an outbreak of COVID-19,” said Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. “Given the news that the team apparently gathered to practice last week after expressly being told not to do so, the Titans could be facing a consequence the likes of which the NFL has never seen.”

The NFL has been taking COVID protocols seriously and enforcing harsh penalties for infractions, so it would not come as a surprise if the punishment is bigger than many expect. 

After a 16 day absence, the Titans made their long awaited return to football on a rare Tuesday night matchup against the Buffalo Bills. After only three practices since their last game against the Vikings, the Titans came out motivated, dominating the Bills by a score of 42-16 and remained undefeated. Their long, controversial battle with COVID seems to have come to a close, at least for now. But, as the Titans move forward, other teams begin their battles.

On the Saturday morning before Week 4, it was announced that New England Patriots starting quarterback Cam Newton had tested positive for the coronavirus. With their game against the Kansas City Chiefs being scheduled the next day at 4:25 p.m. ET, many believed that this would become the second game of the week that was moved. That changed however, as all other tests on both teams came back negative. Subsequently, the game was moved and became an impromptu Monday Night Football game the day after. 

The Patriots had hoped that they would be able to put everything behind them and start fresh, but more bad news came the next day. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore tested positive for the virus following Monday Night’s game against the Chiefs. This led to their game against the Denver Broncos to be pushed back a week, putting both teams in a bye week. The Patriots facility shut down and luckily avoided a mass spread like what happened to the Titans. They returned to practice on Oct. 14 and welcomed back Newton and Gilmore to the team following back their absence. With all eyes looking toward Denver, it seemed like they would finally be able to focus strictly on football. But, after only practicing for two days, the Patriots facility was shut down once again, citing another positive test. 

The rapid increase of cases in the NFL has caused the league to make adjustments to its protocols. The closing of facilities and postponement of games will continue to be on a case by case basis. The enforcement of masks at all times will continue and limited contact is necessary even if all have tested negative. Leading up to Week 6, the league announced that any members of an organization who is experiencing any symptoms of illness will be sent home, even if they have not tested positive. When they are able to return will be a decision made by team doctors and NFL disease experts. Tests were being administered everyday except the day of a game, but part of the slew of changes was the addition of game-day testing. 

The constant testing could help with stopping a spread before it occurs. But, what has now been learned is that these tests can also be false. False positive results from rapid testing has brought this method into question. Both the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts have experienced these false positives and were forced to close their facilities, only to find out that the tests were negative. This has not only been an issue in the NFL, but with others who use these rapid tests. As much as it is convenient and beneficial to have the results as soon as possible, these incorrect tests can end up costing some players, as they might have to miss a game when they didn’t need to.

In what has already been a frustrating NFL season due to injuries, it seems that positive tests will continue to rock the league. As teams now begin to go on their regular scheduled bye weeks, rescheduling will become a bigger issue for the NFL. The possibility of adding another week is still on the table and with the pace that these positive tests have come, it seems like it will have to be done. But as of now, the NFL believes that they will be able to finish off the season without it. Plans of an NBA-like bubble, even for the playoffs, are not in play as of right now, as the number of members in an organization makes it hard to go through with this plan. 

As we approach the midway point of the season, the NFL continues to be tested week in and week out. As of now, there is no major threat that would cause the league to halt their season, let alone cancel it. That, however, is dependent on how many positive tests appear weekly. Only time will tell if the NFL will be pushed to a breaking point, but regardless of how careful the league is in enforcing their rules, at the end of the day it is out of their control. For now, they can only hope that it does not push their season to the brink.

Written by: Omar Navarro— sports@theaggie.org