The NFL’s Week 4 COVID-19 postponements and cancellations are not a sign that the system is failing: They’re a sign that the system is working. That’s an important principle to keep in mind as the NFL enters the 2020 reality of disruption and confusion after three weeks of smooth sailing. Rescheduled games and uncertainty about how the league will cope with additional outbreaks may be harrowing and cause some anxiety for players, fans, stakeholders, and even NFL Recap, but the league’s COVID-19 protocols are the closest thing America has right now to a high-profile real-time example of how to slow the spread of the virus, keep its employees healthy and potentially save countless lives.

COVID-19 Postponement Recap

As you know, the Tennessee Titans are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The team shut down in-person activities on Tuesday, but positive results have trickled in throughout the week. That’s not surprising: It often takes several days for an infected individual’s viral load to increase to the point that it is detectable.

Adam Schefter reported on Sunday morning that the Titans had two more positive results among players and staff, bringing their total for the week to 18. He also reported that the NFL and NFLPA were investigating possible protocol violations.  

Sunday’s Titans game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was rescheduled for Week 7. Their Week 5 game against the Buffalo Bills is in jeopardy; per protocols, the earliest the team can resume in-person activities is Wednesday. The Vikings were rigorously tested throughout the week with no positives, clearing them to face the Houston Texans on Sunday.

News broke on Saturday that Cam Newton tested positive, as did Kansas City Chiefs practice squad QB Jordan Ta’amu. The Chiefs-New England Patriots game was postponed so teams could conduct further testing. There were no further positive tests as of Sunday morning, per Schefter, and the game was rescheduled for Monday night at press time. 

A player on the New Orleans Saints also tested positive, according to reports on Sunday morning, but then tested negative on multiple follow-ups. The Detroit Lions-New Orleans Saints game was not postponed.  

What it means

In an ideal world, your place of business, your kids’ school, and your local restaurants, taverns, and grocery stores would also follow protocols like the ones the NFL uses. Employees/students would receive constant testing based on their risk factors. Activities would be suspended or postponed while infected individuals were quarantined and contract tracers tracked down family and community members who were exposed. It would be inconvenient. It would be disruptive. And we would all really know how prevalent COVID-19 was in our local communities and be much better equipped to contain its spread. 

Related | NFL Games Today TV Schedule: How and where to watch in Week 4

There’s a lot of inaccurate reporting going on about NFL outbreaks right now because sports reporters are not epidemiologists and COVID-19 timelines are tricky. When a Titans player tested positive on Sunday, it was because test results have a built-in lag, NOT because the organization’s outbreak still rages out of control.

The Vikings do not appear to be infected because few Titans who later tested positive were on the field, and those that did probably had extremely low viral loads at the time, NOT because playing football against an opponent with the virus is a low-risk activity because everyone is outside or something. 

There’s also an understandable urge to get a little melodramatic when everyone from the Titans to the president to Cam Newton tests positive. The NFL isn’t shutting down for the year, folks, because there is too much money involved. It also shouldn’t: we need to encourage institutions to adopt strict testing and tracing protocols like the ones the NFL and NFLPA have instituted, not shut down the ones that are actually finding and dealing with asymptomatic cases.

As for the Titans investigation: it serves as a reminder to 31 other teams to take protocols seriously or else face both an outbreak AND league discipline. We are all fatigued after months of restrictions, and many of us let the mask slip off our noses now and then. The NFL’s protocols double as wake-up calls. 

What if some games are canceled and cannot be rescheduled?

Folks, I am old enough to remember watching the nine-game 1982 season, when the NFL played two weeks before the players went on strike for two months, then staged a goofy tournament where teams with 4-5 records reached the playoffs. I watched the 1987 replacement games, which still count to this day in the standings.

Those 1982 and 1987 seasons gave us The Hogs, The Smurfs, the legend of John Riggins and Doug Williams’ Super Bowl heroics: NFL history would be much poorer (especially in Washington) if those seasons were discarded. Joe Montana threw five touchdown passes as a strikebreaker against substitute teachers and insurance salesmen in 1987; no one puts an asterisk next to his statistics. 

It also wasn’t unusual for a few teams to be involved in two ties per year before sudden-death overtime was introduced in the mid-1970s. The Raiders made the playoffs in 1970 with an 8-4-2 record; any complaints about whether that was fair are lost to history. There will be lots of griping from fans of a 12-4 team if they lose their division to a 12-3 team, but there’s lots of griping from New Orleans Saints fans every year about something or another, and it doesn’t cause the NFL to fold.

Enjoy what we have. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Follow the local guidelines and your employer’s rules. And count yourself lucky if there is robust testing and tracing in your community, because we should all be a little more like the NFL in that respect right now. 

What’s next for COVID-19 and the NFL?

No one knows. Let’s hope for the best and plan for the worst.