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Raiders OL scare demonstrates how NFL's COVID-19 challenge lies away from the field, not on game day

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The Las Vegas Raiders sent their entire starting offensive line home on Wednesday because of a COVID-19 scare.

Head coach Jon Gruden told reporters that right tackle Trent Brown was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list and that the rest of his line mates were barred from team facilities, at least until Thursday.

The reason? They were in contact with Brown. Brown’s placement on the list doesn’t necessarily mean that he contracted COVID-19. It does mean the team believes he’s been exposed to the coronavirus and placed in quarantine.

“I guess they were around Trent," Gruden told reporters on a video conference. “I can't get into things any more than that. But hopefully we'll get some players back tomorrow or for Sunday.”

NFL Network’s Omar Ruiz reports that contact tracing led the Raiders to the decision to send home left tackle Kolton Miller, left guard Denzelle Good, center Rodney Hudson and right guard Gabe Jackson.

And thus demonstrates the challenge the NFL has in conducting a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raiders’ problems epitomize NFL’s off-field challenge

In a season that started with concerns that players could transmit COVID-19 to each other on game day, off-field activities are proving to be football’s biggest challenge. That includes meetings, meals and other normally mundane tasks that are proving perilous for everyone amid the pandemic.

Gruden declined to expound on what kind of contact led the Raiders to take extra precautions around their offensive line. With the NFL threatening forfeitures for COVID-19 protocol violations that force schedule changes, it’s in Gruden’s best interest to be as vague as possible. Especially since Las Vegas is already in the league’s crosshairs for past COVID-19 violations.

The Raiders have already had their bye week, greatly limiting their ability to reschedule a game. If they don’t have an offensive line for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then there will be obvious problems.

Jon Gruden's Raiders have had several issues with COVID-19 this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Jon Gruden's Raiders have had several issues with COVID-19 this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Off-field activities present biggest sports risk

The Raiders wouldn’t be the first team to feel the impact of COVID-19 because of off-field activities.

The Tennessee Titans have had the largest outbreak in the NFL, with 24 reported cases among players and team staff forcing a pair of game postponements and wreaking havoc on the NFL schedule.

According to the Wall Street Journal, lax compliance with COVID-19 mask protocols in the team cafeteria played a role in Tennessee’s outbreak. WSJ also noted other sports outbreaks that weren’t connected to gameday exposures.

Notre Dame saw an outbreak of 25 cases in its football program because of a pregame team meal in violation of its own COVID-19 protocols.

The smaller outbreak that forced the New England Patriots to reschedule games and shutter their facilities? Stephon Gilmore tested positive after having dinner with Cam Newton away from team facilities, according to the WSJ.

What about game day?

Meanwhile, there’s been little evidence of COVID-19 being spread when football players line up against each other in outdoor stadiums or in the confines of cavernous domes.

No Minnesota Vikings players tested positive after a Sept. 27 game against Tennessee, which was played a day before eight members of the Titans returned positive tests. South Florida did not have an outbreak after playing Notre Dame in the midst of the Fighting Irish outbreak.

There’s been enough evidence to convince NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills that off-field activities present a significantly greater COVID-19 risk than actually playing football.

“I think that clearly when people are meeting together in small spaces and particularly if masks are not involved, there’s a high risk of transmission,” Sills said on a conference call with media last week. “So I think mask use at all times and avoidance of small, in-person meetings are a very important lesson.

“But I think in the affirmative, we still see no evidence of on-field transmission from football-related activities.”

It’s a lesson that some teams — like the Titans and Raiders — are learning the hard way.

COVID-19 knowledge is constantly evolving

Like everything with COVID-19, almost nothing is certain, and new information is gleaned almost daily. As winter approaches and other indoor sports look to return, game day transmission could ultimately prove a greater concern.

But for now, it’s clear what kind of off-field activities raise the risk. And it’s up to teams, players and staff to comply with protocols to keep themselves and those around them healthy.

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