The NFL season has been sacked by bursts of Covid-19 cases over the last several weeks. Games have been postponed. Teams have been shut down. Safety protocols have been overhauled.
Yet there’s a sliver of hope for football—and many other sports—in this rash of cases. The virus doesn’t appear to have spread from team to team on the field. That echoes the experience of other professional sports that have played during the pandemic without transmitting the virus during competition.
It’s everything else that’s the problem. Traveling and sharing a locker room are more suspect than humongous people tackling one another. And one ritual may be scarier than everything else: having dinner together.
Breaking bread—as a team or in small gatherings—played a starring role in team outbreaks at Notre Dame and on both the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots, for example. But those teams’ subsequent football games didn’t create additional problems: their opponents tested negative.
Most teams haven’t disclosed how they think Covid outbreaks have begun, but the leagues have flagged where they think problems lie by how they change their protocols. The NFL is focusing more on what happens off the field than on. Sitting down to a meal with a team member who subsequently tests positive for coronavirus now may get the guest a mandatory invitation to a five-day isolation period—with no option to escape by registering negative tests.
“We still see no evidence of on-field transmission from football-related activities,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said recently.
The NFL’s experience speaks to a question that’s hanging over everyone who plays sports or is simply attempting to plan Thanksgiving or return to work.
The question is how the virus spreads. The conclusion emerging from the absence of documented cases of inter-team transmission is that most fields of play are far safer than an indoor meal. As the winter approaches, however, some indoors sports like hockey—especially at the recreational or youth level—may yet face problems.
The broad conclusion is buttressed by games in which at least one team had recently been exposed to Covid, including the Tennessee Titans’ game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 27. The day after the game, tests were taken—and eight members of the Titans came up positive. It’s entirely possible they were infectious during the game. As the week went on, the Titans registered more positive tests. The Vikings didn’t.
Explaining why the dog didn’t bark still involves significant speculation. But the most obvious factor appears to be that football games usually take place outside, or, if indoors, in extremely large, well-ventilated spaces. It’s a contact sport, but encounters like blocking and tackling are brief. Tackles are as likely to bring two players face-to-derriere as they are face-to-face.
The league is tentatively starting to acknowledge this welcome discovery. Although opponents who come into contact with a team potentially facing an outbreak are placed into the NFL’s new intensive protocols as an extreme precaution, the measures the league has now established more intensely zero in on personnel who had non-football encounters.