The NFL caught its first COVID outbreak of the young season after the Tennessee Titans confirmed eight positive test results among players and other personnel. The Titans immediately halted in-person activities, as did the Minnesota Vikings, the Titans’ previous opponent. As of Thursday morning, the Titans had one additional player test positive, putting their Week 5 game against the Buffalo Bills in jeopardy, following the postponement of their Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers .
Following the initial positive tests, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to team Chief Executives and Club Presidents outlining the steps the league had taken in response to the outbreak and in accordance with the protocols agreed to with the NFLPA. This outbreak also implicates, for the first time, the COVID Amendments made to the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement as agreed to by the league and the union. In July, the union sent all NFL players a memo containing a summary of those amendments, which addresses a number of important topics, including the 2020 salary cap shortfall, how to count player seasons for compensation and contract purposes, voluntary and high-risk opt-outs, and fallback provisions on compensation and contracts should the 2020 season (or any games thereof) be postponed or cancelled.
Interestingly, the amendments contemplate the cancellation of individual games, but there does not seem to be any guidance as to how decisions to cancel games will be made. Apparently, the power to postpone or cancel games, in consultation with Commissioner Goodell, will reside in a COVID-19 Advisory Committee. The details, at least compared to college athletic conferences with more defined standards for determining whether games will be played, leave a lot to be desired. The NBA seemingly also lacked a set protocol for such decisions, instead relying on a case-by-case process. While that may have worked for the NBA, whose games are not played once-a-week and can be rescheduled with much greater ease, the NFL presents a far more difficult scheduling challenge. Although the NBA has yet to experience an outbreak that could threaten their schedule, it effectively navigated the cancellation of days of games following the players’ wildcat strike for social justice related to the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Immediately following the Titans’ outbreak, there was discussion about what would happen to their upcoming game against the Steelers. The NFL decided swiftly to postpone the game to either Monday or Tuesday, with the Titans permitted to reopen their facilities on Saturday. Then, on Thursday morning, the NFL announced that the Steelers-Titans game actually would not be played in Week 4 following two additional positive tests among the Titans. After more positive tests on Friday, the Titans facility will now remain closed until further notice, and their game against the Steelers has been moved to Week 7 (the Titans’ bye), and the Steelers’ Week 7 game against the Ravens has been moved to Week 8 (the bye for both the Steelers and Ravens).
The abrupt about-face shows how complicated an outbreak can be and perhaps how flexible the NFL must be to handle them. What if the outbreak was worse? What if it affected both teams? What if the outbreak extends, requiring Week 5 games to be postponed and creating a larger scheduling chain reaction? It’s not clear the NFL has answers to these questions. Either the Advisory Committee is keeping their plan under wraps, or the NFL is crossing its fingers, hoping it fails to catch COVID just as well as Washington’s receiving corps fails to catch passes.
Alex Blutman is the Managing Editor of Online Content for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a second-year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2022).