Whether the NFL can contain the Titans' COVID-19 outbreak will determine season's fate

Between the big touchdowns and highlight-reel catches, not to mention regular updates from the NFL with actual numbers about how well its COVID-19 testing was going, it was easy to lose touch with reality.

Football is back, baby! Who cares that we’re in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century — we got this!

If that describes you, don’t feel bad because I’m guilty of it, too. I’ve watched so much football the past three weeks I have overworked and underpaid high school football coaches telling me I need to do a better job finding a work-life balance.

But 9:19 a.m. CT Tuesday, a wake-up call disguised as an email from the Tennessee Titans hit my inbox:

“Out of the abundance of caution, the organization has decided to work remotely today as we follow NFL protocols related to the Covid-19 virus. Several tests have come back positive and are working through the process of confirming them. We will have more information tomorrow.”

Eight members of the Titans’ organization tested positive for COVID-19, meaning the team they narrowly beat Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings, may have been exposed to it, too.

The NFL’s first COVID-19 outbreak was officially underway.

And really, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Without a verifiable NBA- or NHL-like bubble, this was always a possibility, maybe even a likelihood.

Now, we get to see how equipped the league is to contain the spread. We’ll also get a sense whether the NFL, which boasts far more players and team employees (and thus, far more risk) than any other American sports league, can pull off a full season in the midst of a pandemic … or whether it has always been a pipe dream.

Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, is shown Tuesday with clouds hovering in the sky.
The Titans suspended in-person activities through Friday after the NFL says three Titans players and five personnel tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first COVID-19 outbreak of the 2020 NFL season. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Decision to play rests on COVID-19 test results

Players and front-office types across the league are closely watching what happens in Minnesota and Tennessee. They’re using the moment as a reminder to everyone in their organizations about the importance of following the protocols the league has established to mitigate risk and exposure.

“I think there will always be a concern, especially when we get into the cold and flu season and families are staying indoors more,” one executive told Yahoo Sports in response to Tuesday’s developments. “But the testing is working; we just need to stay focused on the protocols.”

The league’s protocols in handling Tuesday’s developments were obvious and necessary, as both franchises were sent home from the team facilities, while the individuals who tested positive have been isolated. Contact tracing investigations have already begun as these clubs seek to narrow down who the affected individuals have come into contact with.

As such, the next 24-48 hours will be critical. Both teams will continue to undergo regular testing, and it takes three to seven days for those who are infected to test positive for the virus. So while the Vikings are currently sitting on zero positive tests, there’s a danger that the number could rise this week as they undergo more testing.

If that comes to be, the NFL will then have a decision to make.

First, league officials will have to decide whether it is still safe for both teams to play Sunday (or possibly Monday) and risk further spread. If the answer is no, they will have to reschedule the game. From a football standpoint, that isn’t that big of a deal. The schedule is flexible enough that the league can easily play it later, either by adding an extra week to shuffling games around or whatever.

NFL’s priority is to complete every scheduled game

In the event additional positive tests emerge, the NFL will make a decision that helps it achieve the only two things it cares about this season.

The first is doing whatever is necessary to play every scheduled game, all so it can fulfill television contracts and ensure that everybody, from the players to the teams, gets paid a significant chunk of what they’re supposed to make. TV contracts account for the bulk of league revenue, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep that going.

The second priority is making sure no team employee gets critically sick. If that happened, it could rightfully complicate the ability to do the former.

Some are already raising concerns about how the schedule could be affected by a postponement or how the Titans could play a game Sunday or Monday with only one day of on-field practice work (which seems like the best-case scenario at the moment). However, the key thing to remember here is … none of that matters to the NFL now.

Don’t get me wrong: Is it fair for Tennessee to have to face a blitz-heavy Pittsburgh team with little on-field work, all while the Steelers get to practice as normal? Of course not. But this was always going to be a year where you can throw competitive balance out the window. These guys are just trying to finish the season while averting a disaster.

Besides, we have no idea whether the Titans’ game against the Steelers or the Vikings’ game against the Houston Texans will even be played this weekend.

One thing we do know is this: The Titans played Sunday with infected players, which means we’ll get a sense for how easily the virus can transmit during a game, something we don’t actually know yet. It will prove to be instructional, though we can already conclude that the fact the virus spread so quickly among the Titans as a significant reason why the NFL has been fining coaches for not wearing their masks on gameday.

When you’re up against COVID-19, after all, every little bit helps.

So here’s to fans, players, coaches and team executives not taking for granted the pro football we’ve already seen this year and what we hope to get over the coming months.

Tuesday’s happenings are a wake-up call that the league’s ability to finish the season — something millions certainly want — is depending on it.

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