The beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in March marked a sudden end to youth, collegiate and professional sports mid-season, either suspending or canceling the season entirely. With mandates prohibiting mass gatherings and introducing social distancing guidelines, the status of continuing or restarting sports seasons became uncertain. Subsequently, professional leagues scrambled to devise their own policies that could allow them to play under limited circumstances in order to salvage their lucrative television and advertising deals that deliver entertainment to fans at home.
Though highly controversial in a time where some would argue that sports are not pertinent in a pandemic, the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) made their return in the summer of 2020. The MLB started in mid-July, while the NBA followed suit in August. The NFL season started at the end of September. How the season would be managed after its restart was wholly a shot in the dark.
The NBA suspended their 2019-2020 season in March after rates of infection within the league skyrocketed shortly after the reports of the 2019 NBA Defensive Player of the Year and Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert caught the virus. In the beginning, teams within the league enforced a stay-at-home policy, disallowing players to travel with their respective teams. Cases only continued to rise since then. As a result, the NBA closed off all operations until they figured out a plan to restart the season.
In retrospect, the NBA meticulously crafted a successful bubble to keep players isolated from the public. Situated in Orlando, Florida, the NBA held team facilities all in one giant lot and only 16 total teams were invited to play in empty stadiums with rules regulating the conditions on which one can leave the bubble. Individual players were only allowed to invite a limited number of guests during the semi-finals of the playoffs. The LA Times reported that only two players contracted COVID-19 in the bubble prior to the restart. However, zero players tested positive or exhibited symptoms when games were being held until the end of the season. This allowed the restarted season to play on schedule without any canceled games or postponement due to COVID-19.
Punishments on teams and individual players were imposed through fines and potential disqualifications if they violated any rules during their time in the bubble. A more notable case occurred with Los Angeles Clippers Guard Lou Williams, who was caught at an Orlando strip club for some chicken wings, was forced to take a 10 day leave from the bubble to quarantine. This situation prevented him from engaging in team activities. Williams ultimately tested negative, but the NBA still treated his case with the utmost precaution.
It would be unfair to compare the NBA’s capacity to the NFL and MLB, who have much larger player rosters, staff and other personnel to manage. After all, the NBA has already begun their 2020-21 season. The Houston Rockets vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder season opener was postponed after three Rockets players tested positive for COVID-19. The means, along with any health violations, in which they got the virus remain unknown. The postponement came due to the Rockets not having a sufficient number of players available to compete. That wasn’t the case for the Rockets’ All-Star guard James Harden, who was fined $50,000 after violating health and safety protocols when he attended an indoor party. This fine is a precedent set directly for holding individuals accountable for breaking league health codes. Fans took to Twitter, immediately brewing up a storm over the players who have broken the rules, particularly with Harden. Some have viewed his punishments as lax while other fans believe that players are selfishly jeopardizing the state of the season, which suggests that greater ramifications should be enforced.
In order to adjust to the mishaps of playing a full season on schedule during a pandemic, the NBA cut their season by 10 games and added extra days to accommodate any necessary future postponements.
The NFL became a separate headcase of its own, as their model more or less follows the MLB with respect to launching the season. The NFL decided to allow every team to compete and travel. In some states, fans were allowed into their stadiums. However, the NFL is hosting only a 60 game season, which is more than 100 games less than what they traditionally play. MLB teams closely monitored their players, giving them quick access to tests and keeping players and personnel isolated if positive. This method was unsuccessful. Games were still postponed, forcing teams to play double headers, or star players to miss significant time due to infections, in the middle of the 2020 World Series.
In game six of the MLB World Series, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner had to be pulled from the game after testing positive for COVID-19. Turner celebrated with his team later that night when the Dodgers pulled off the series-sealing victory, but their celebratory high was sobered when the team reported five new cases within the organization in the days following their win — a headache NFL organizations had hoped to avoid with what is at stake. A total 146 employees contracted the virus, which includes players, personnel, umpires and other relevant persons to the MLB.
Meanwhile, 32 NFL teams participated in their normal 16 game season, following the state restrictions on COVID-19 and enforcing some of their own policies to keep themselves contained. Some states have limited capacity in their stadiums; the Tennessee Titans allowed 21% stadium capacity that can account for 15,000 fans. Other states completely prohibit fan seating at stadiums, such as LA’s Sofi Stadium. The San Francisco 49ers, who normally play their home games at Santa Clara’s Levi Stadium, were forced to play the last three of their “home” games at State Farm Stadium, which is the home of their division rival, the Arizona Cardinals. Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 restrictions have disallowed contact sports since the high spike in cases in November, essentially exiling the 49ers from their own team facilities in the county.
After the NBA was applauded for their success in the bubble, many fans wondered if NFL teams would develop rules restricting movement or create a centralized facility where all teams would compete. Instead, they still continue to travel across the country to play their games, hardly minimizing the risk of personnel contracting the virus. A primetime game featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Baltimore Ravens, a beloved and heated popular division rivalry, was postponed three times due to COVID-19. The season is still slated to run as scheduled despite a growing number of players being dumped off to the COVID-19 Reserve List, a reserve category designated for players who have the virus to effectively quarantine.
The Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens game demonstrated their scattered direction and capacity for dealing with the virus, or a greater lack thereof. Ravens wide receiver Dez Bryant had tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the start of the game. Bryant was prohibited from partaking in team activities and was immediately added to the reserve list. Unfortunately, this was not the last case for the Ravens. As the season left many of their starters, including 2019 NFL MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, out for multiple games, many fans were frustrated and attributed the losses to their absence. The NFL stirred up a bit of controversy as to why there was not an immediate response to postpone or cancel the game.
When asking locals around Washington DC, home of the Washington Football Team (formerly known as the “Washington Redskins”), they felt indifferent about their only postponed game of their Week 13 matchup with the Steelers, which came directly as a result from the third postponement of the Ravens and Steelers Week 12 game. Many described the season as variable and unlike the NFL they were used to seeing, with some suggesting that this season does not really count for anything.
“I could have lived another week without watching my team play without their starters, but they’d lose anyways,” Ron, a DC local and self-proclaimed super fan of the Football Team, said. “This year, I have more money to spend now that I’m not buying tickets; but it’s common knowledge that it would be a lot safer this way — not having sports this year — for players and those associated.”
In the interest of public health, many have questioned why teams do not face stricter punishment for sabotaging the season with their lax behaviors. The Ravens’ punishment was a slap-on-the-wrist fine of 250,000 after continuous violations of COVID-19 regulations. The largest fine of 350,000 belongs to the Tennessee Titans for their failure to comply with the NFL policy on face coverings. No individuals were punished, but the team punishment echoed possibilities of forfeiting draft picks or games that ultimately did not come to fruition. Now that the season has ended, the NFL stands firm on their stance to leave any COVID-19 regulations unchanged despite the growing number of cases and the upcoming playoffs. As the regular season concluded, the NFL is still yet to report the official number of cases throughout the year — a streak that could continue throughout the playoffs.
The league has controversially opted to move forward with their decision to not operate in a COVID-19 free bubble despite only 12 teams involved; as some would argue, increased infections could jeopardize the playoff schedule. It might not bode well for the NFL to fumble the state of their season. But with less teams competing and advertisement deals and sponsors at stake, they may seek greater alternatives to manage the situation.
Despite the distribution of vaccines, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell motioned to not require any of their personnel to be vaccinated prior to the Super Bowl, citing that their urgency to be vaccinated should not be prioritized above healthcare workers and first responders. The Super Bowl will be hosted at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida, a “red zone” state which has recorded almost up to 1.5 million cases. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to reopen sports stadiums under his Phase 3 plan in October against criticism from public health experts, but the NFL remained firm with their policy of a 25% stadium capacity. Goodell remains unsure of how he and DeSantis will maintain the safety of fans and players during their blockbuster finale of the season.
“The governor has been very supportive of the Super Bowl,” Goodell said. “We also want to make sure that we’re sending the right messages of doing things safely.”
The NFL Playoffs kicked off on Jan. 9. The Super Bowl is scheduled to be played on Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL.
Jaidee Maximo Villaflor is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.