NFL plans to pump in crowd noise, argues teams without fans won't be at disadvantage

Plans for fans in the stands are all over the place in the NFL.

League leaders think that’s just fine.

Teams like the New York Giants and Jets have ruled fans out until further notice amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Others like the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers have banned fans early, but are holding out hope for later in the season.

Then there’s the Miami Dolphins, who are throwing caution to the wind with a plan to invite fans to their home opener. It’s an idea deemed by some as “risky” as South Florida remains a hotspot despite declines after being one of the nation’s hardest-hit regions by COVID-19.

Roger Goodell: Fan inequity not unfair

The NFL doesn’t see a problem here in terms of a level playing field. Commissioner Roger Goodell said so himself on Tuesday, telling reporters on a conference call that there will be no advantage for teams with fans in the stands.

“We do not believe it’s a competitive advantage,” Goodell said. “We discussed it very early on with our competition committee and with our clubs. We do not see that.

“We obviously have varying capacities across the league, and from our standpoint, we want to invite our fans in if we can do it safely and we can do it with the full support of local officials. We think our fans want to come the stadium.”

That, of course, is absurd. Is Goodell actually disputing the long-held sports axiom of home-field advantage that comes from droves of screaming fans in the stands? Or is he just doing anything he can to avoid discouraging teams from inviting fans and the revenue that they generate to games.

Maybe he just has supreme faith in the league’s plan to level the playing field. On the same conference call, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent provided an update on the league’s plan to simulate a football experience to something close to normal as possible amid a pandemic.

NFL’s plan to level playing field

Teams will be allowed to pump in noise to simulate home crowds.

Insert jokes about the Atlanta Falcons and the Indianapolis Colts here.

A general view of Hard Rock Stadium.
Teams with and without fans this season will be allowed to pipe in artificial crowd noise. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

“For teams with no fans in the stands, we’ve created audio that will be played in all stadiums,” Vincent said.

Teams with limited fans like the Dolphins will also initially be allowed to use piped-in audio, according to Vincent. The thought there, presumably, is that 13,000 fans in the 65,000-seat Hard Rock Stadium won’t come close to resembling a normal home crowd. So they’ll get an assist from loudspeakers.

‘It’s honestly ridiculous’

Details are still being finalized, most notably the decibel level of the pumped-in noise. But as long as some stadiums have fans and others don’t, the argument over an unfair playing field persists. Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott made his thoughts clear on Monday in a conference call with reporters.

“I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be, on the surface, what appears to be a playing field that’s like that, inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums,” McDermott said.

McDermott’s Bills will play home games for the foreseeable future without fans in the stands. Meanwhile, they’ll face AFC East road games against the Dolphins and potentially the New England Patriots with supporters in the stands.

It’s fair for McDermott to be upset.

But in a season where football is going on amid a deadly pandemic, a level playing field in terms of crowd noise falls pretty far down the list of priorities. The debate of real concern here is whether the NFL should be taking public health risks in the first place by inviting crowds of any size.

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