Facing COVID-19 clusters in vaccinated NFL players, league's relaxed testing protocols are failing

·NFL columnist
·5 min read

If it were November for the Tennessee Titans, this COVID-19 outbreak would have been an embarrassing catastrophe. But unlike last season, when a swath of infections inside the franchise showered the team with scorn, the cascading blame would have spilled over and splashed others.

This time, the suits in New York would be soaked in responsibility, too, from commissioner Roger Goodell on down.

Reportedly nine Titans players as of Thursday were COVID-positive, as well as an infected head coach in Mike Vrabel. That is the kind of outbreak that would threaten to cancel a regular-season game if it transpired just a few weeks from now. It would pose the type of scheduling implosion that Goodell dealt with a handful of times in 2020 and made abundantly clear is now unacceptable. He showcased the league's serious tone in July via saber-rattling memo that threatened teams and players with severe ramifications for a canceled game.

“Every club is obligated under the Constitution and Bylaws to have its team ready to play at the scheduled time and place,” Goodell wrote in that memo. “A failure to do so is deemed conduct detrimental. There is no right to postpone a game.”

A little over a month later, you have to wonder: What about the league’s obligation to make sure that every game happens? 

Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel talks to his players during NFL football training camp Friday, July 30, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, pictured talking to his players during training camp in late July, is battling COVID-19. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

If we’ve learned anything, keeping the trains running on time in 2020 was a group effort that required everyone’s attention. There was a universal focus that was ultimately achieved largely because the NFL and union worked out a massive testing infrastructure that was successful the majority of the time — and even in the smattering of failures, it did a good job pointing out weak spots that required attention and renovation.

Well, here’s the thing about that whole testing system: The NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to largely gut it, removing the requirement of daily testing for all players and replacing it with an infrastructure that is creating holes in the league’s defense against outbreaks. The simple explanation of it: If you’re fully vaccinated, you’re subject to COVID testing only once every 14 days. If you’re not fully vaccinated, you’re subject to the same daily testing as the old system.

At the time when the NFL and union agreed on this measure, there was a thought that the lighter testing schedule would become an incentive for players to get vaccinated. Conversely, the continued daily testing would become part of a punitive system that would make life so annoying for the unvaccinated that they would eventually get on board.

Relaxing the protocols and testing seemed like the right move, especially if it helped get the vast majority of the NFL vaccinated. But there was a problem that the league and union didn’t see coming. Specifically, the outbreak of the Delta variant, which is wreaking havoc in communities that have begun to relax into post-vaccination life. The pandemic is in a phase where the unvaccinated are facing the vengeance of a more aggressive strain of COVID-19. It's also an era when the vaccinated are grappling with the reality that their shots are mitigating their symptoms and medical complications, but not completely preventing them from becoming infected or transmitting COVID to others.

This is where the testing gap is becoming a problem. It’s also where the union has broken away from the NFL and now wants daily testing to resume again for all players.

From the union’s vantage, it’s clear that daily testing was the most successful possible “catch and prevent” method when it came to someone turning up COVID positive. The rationale being that there are only so many close contacts and opportunities to spread COVID in a 24-hour window. When that window expands to 14 days for vaccinated players who can still catch and spread COVID, it creates a hole in the defense. The union wants that closed via daily testing for all.

While we can chop up the science and argue vaccinated vs. unvaccinated infection rate percentages, the union has a basic thought process on this. The previous system worked and also taught lessons that can be used to augment daily testing and make it even better. So why not look at the NFL and ask its franchise owners to again go the extra mile financially to ensure there won’t be any canceled games? Why not look at what is happening inside the Titans this week and react with a mindset that success is achieved through punitive actions against unvaccinated players?

“We’ve been saying this for three weeks now,” one union official said of the need to bring back daily tests for all players.

Was this a mistake, changing a system that largely succeeded in 2020?

“We. Told. Them. So.” the official said in a text. “What’s worse: we know what worked last year.”

Asked what the players association believed was causing the NFL to continue to refuse daily testing (or whether the motivation might be to reduce testing costs) the union official replied simply: “I can’t even begin to rationalize it.”

Given what we’re seeing now in the league, the inability to understand the NFL's testing reduction is growing. A memo from Goodell didn’t stop COVID. It also didn’t create a 100% vaccinated NFL. And even if it had, the Delta variant has changed the landscape. Even a fully vaccinated league would still be vulnerable to COVID outbreaks if a 14-day testing window (or even a newly NFL-proposed 7-day testing window) was ultimately put into place.

The simple reality is the league had a stringent and expensive set of protocols that helped the NFL and its players navigate the pandemic last season. Well, the pandemic hasn’t ended. Instead, it mutated. And that change took the league and union’s hopeful dream of a post-COVID, fully-vaccinated NFL and pushed it further down the road.

The response should be to admit that changing the testing playbook was a mistake. If the union can admit that, the NFL should, too.