Titans, Notre Dame outbreaks are reminder that COVID-19 doesn't care about football's profit motives

This was always the risk. Always.

It was always the risk, and the NFL and top-level college football pushed ahead anyway, because they value money over the health and wellbeing of players, coaches, staff and the families of all of the above.

On Tuesday, the NFL announced that the Tennessee Titans had eight members of the team — three players and five personnel — test positive for COVID-19. According to multiple reports, they are true positives, not potentially false positives.

This came hot on the heels of Notre Dame announcing that it is up to 18 members of the football team who have tested positive. The Fighting Irish postponed last week’s game with Wake Forest when seven players were positive.

Other NCAA games have had to be postponed as well.

Hubris and profits don’t matter to a pandemic.

The Titans are the first team in the NFL to endure an outbreak of the virus. For weeks so many in and around the NFL patted the league on the back because it made it through the modified preseason with just a couple of positive tests. Yet with teams semi-confined to their own facilities, the real test was always going to be once the games and travel started.

COVID-19 outbreaks among teams were always the principle risk in football pushing forward with its pro and college seasons. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
COVID-19 outbreaks among teams were always the principle risk in football pushing forward with its pro and college seasons. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The NHL is being celebrated for closing out its season and declaring a Stanley Cup champion on Monday night, and the NBA and WNBA are proceeding with their seasons as well. Do you know what they have in common? They bubbled. Those players opted to isolate themselves in controlled environments and they were able to proceed with their respective games.

The NCAA — which continues to play us all for fools and argue that athletes at high-profile member institutions are “amateurs” who happen to play a sport while they attend classes — can’t really bubble FBS players, at least not without conceding they’re not really “student athletes.” In a true bubble situation, football players couldn’t attend classes because they’d be mingling with students and professors.

The NCAA canceled all fall sports for Division II and III schools, but at the Division I level, where there’s huge television money to be made, bettors to engage and deep-pocketed alums to appease, the body magically left it up to conferences and schools to decide what they’d do.

Yes, we’ve said this before. Yes, we’re reiterating. Because it needs to be repeated.

The NFL could have decided to bubble. Of course it would have been expensive, but what price does a player or coach’s long-term health (or even life) carry? Being bubbled for months would have been mentally taxing, as some NBA players have admitted, but if having the season and making the money from various massive contracts was the most important thing, franchise owners should have spent whatever it took to do it.

So far, we know about only the Titans’ outbreak. But the Minnesota Vikings, their opponent on Sunday, have suspended all team activities until they know they also don’t have one.

Both the Titans and the Vikings have suspended in-person activities at their team facilities. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Both the Titans and the Vikings have suspended in-person activities at their team facilities. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Titans’ inside linebackers coach is 64-year-old Jim Haslett. Their outside linebackers coach, Shane Bowen, reportedly was in COVID protocol before the team’s trip to Minnesota last weekend and stayed home. Those two certainly work closely with one another.

Jon Robinson, the Tennessee general manager, has a teenage daughter with Type 1 diabetes, alopecia areata and rheumatoid arthritis, all of which gives her a suppressed immune system and puts her at greater risk in terms of COVID.

NFL teams are testing with great frequency — another example that having money can get you things many of us can’t — but testing doesn’t matter if all of the other precautions aren’t being taken, like constant mask-wearing, frequent and thorough hand-washing and keeping safe distance from others.

And in football, during practice and games, that last part is impossible.

For now, the Titans have been forced out of their facility until Saturday. As of this writing, they’re still scheduled to play a game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. If the NFL is about fairness and parity, how can that game go on if Tennessee can’t practice and properly prepare?

There has been some uproar over the fines the NFL levied on coaches and their teams for not wearing masks properly during games, and indeed those coaches are appealing the fines they got, but this is why the league did it.

COVID does not care that you need to shout at a referee over a missed penalty. COVID doesn’t buy into the antiquated idea that football players are somehow tougher than the virus or need to show some foolish macho strength.

And it certainly doesn’t care about profits.

In a best-case scenario, the eight Titans members who are positive will all come out of it as best as possible, with minimal lingering effects. But there’s a worst-case scenario, and that’s always been the risk.

And football pushed ahead anyway.

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