Patriots

The Patriots and Chiefs shouldn’t have played Monday. The NFL is to blame for what happens next.

Stephon Gilmore and two more Titans players received positive COVID-19 test results on Wednesday.

The Patriots closed facilities were closed Wednesday following the news of Stephon Gilmore testing positive for COVID-19. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Commentary

Six months.

That’s the headstart the NFL had on other major American professional sports leagues when the spread of COVID-19 shut down the NBA, NHL, and MLB back in March. 

Not only did the NFL have the lead time to create a safe environment to hold the 2020 NFL season in during a global pandemic, it also had the added advantage of watching what the other major sports leagues did to help bring back their own leagues over the summer.

One would think, with all that time and the vast resources available to the NFL, the league would be able to create a detailed and exhaustive plan that would allow the 2020 season to take place under conditions that would protect the health and safety of NFL players, coaches, and personnel, similar to what the NBA pulled off with its bubble in Walt Disney World.

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But just like it has done so many other times with regards to the topic of player safety in the NFL, the league didn’t do enough to meaningfully protect its players and personnel from the threat of COVID-19. And now, the league is starting to suffer the consequences of its inaction in addressing the threat of COVID-19.

This weekend brought news of Cam Newton’s positive COVID test, which knocked him out of the Patriots’ road matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs also had a player test positive on Saturday, which reportedly was practice squad quarterback Jordan Ta’amu.

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Rather than push the game back to another week to limit potential spread of the virus, the NFL decided to push forward with reckless abandon to hold this game, thinking that just because there were no further positive tests between Saturday morning and Monday night, when the game was moved to, that meant there was no further spread. 

The NFL, and its chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, either forgot — or worse, ignored — a very basic fact about COVID-19 spread that made having the Patriots play their Week 4 game as scheduled an incredibly dangerous decision that put the health and safety of players, coaches, and team personnel all at risk. 

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What the league didn’t factor into their decision is the fact that the incubation period of coronavirus can take anywhere from 2-14 days, according to CDC guidelines. A player can potentially contract the virus and not trigger a positive test result for up to two weeks. This means that any team that has a player that tests positive can not possibly know the full extent of the spread of the virus for up to two weeks, due to the potential for virus incubation for a prolonged period of time.

And it’s not like the league needed to look far to see how this virus can quickly spread undetected through an NFL locker room. The Titans received their first positive test on Sept. 24, and have had positive cases continue to crop up ever since. It was reported Wednesday morning that two more Titans players tested positive, 13 days after the first positive test result, bringing the total of positive tests for Titans players and staffers to 22.

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Despite having firsthand evidence of how this virus can rip through a team so stealthily, the league decided to have the Patriots fly out to play Kansas City on Monday night, even though there was no way of knowing for certain if any other team personnel had contracted the virus by that point. 

The situation was bad enough that the Patriots had to take two team planes from two different airports. One plane was designated for players and coaches who had close contact with Newton and thus were at higher risk of infection. But the NFL had no problem with those higher-risk players getting off that plane and playing on Monday night, mask-less and potentially spreading the virus on the field. 

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And lo and behold, the decision to play the game looks to have spectacularly backfired for the NFL. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore found out he tested positive for the virus Wednesday morning. He was also one of the roughly 20 players to travel on the “higher risk of infection” plane, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio reported.

The league has nobody to blame but itself for the five-alarm fire it now finds itself in. In failing to enact the proper protocols and procedures to ensure its season could go on with minimal disruption, it endangered the lives of its players and their families in the process.

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Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who exchanged pleasantries with Gilmore after the game on Monday night, recently announced with his fiance Brittany that the couple is expecting a child. 

Now, Mahomes risks bringing the virus back home with him, which threatens the health of his now-pregnant fiance. All because the NFL deemed it OK for New England to play because they thought the virus had been contained after positive tests on both the Chiefs and Patriots.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the NFL’s hubris with all of this? Despite the news today of Gilmore testing positive, New England’s Week 5 game against the Denver Broncos is still on as of right now. That the first thing the NFL did after Gilmore’s positive test wasn’t to delay or cancel their Week 5 game tells you all you need to know. The NFL is showing where its priorities are, and that’s certainly not with its players and coaches. 

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The NFL’s lapse in judgment in taking this virus seriously was obvious from Day One, but there is still time for the league to rectify its issues, and take real steps to ensure the well-being of its players and other personnel. 

With three games already at risk of being postponed or canceled in Week 5 because of positive COVID tests, and active coronavirus outbreaks on at least two NFL teams currently, the league must act now to establish a bubble environment for each team before it is too late. 

The ship has likely sailed on establishing a league-wide bubble in one location for all 32 NFL teams like the NBA did. If the NFL had taken this seriously from the jump, it is possible that they could have mapped out such an environment, but in the middle of the NFL season, that would likely prove too difficult. 

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What the NFL can do, still, is establish 32 bubbles for each team in its respective city, or perhaps create regional bubbles of 4-8 teams that could play games round robin. You could have AFC East and NFC East teams in one bubble, AFC West and NFC West teams in another, and so on.

The NFLPA has balked so far at putting its players in a bubble, mostly because players don’t want to be away from their families and loved ones for so long. But the financial ramifications of a lost season would be devastating for the league, and would impact the players significantly too. A bubble, or bubbles, may be the only way to save the season at this rate. 

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It’s time for the NFL to stop casting a blind eye on the serious threat that COVID-19 presents not only to the league, but more importantly to the health and safety of its players and staff. Further ignorance on the part of the league threatens the rest of the 2020 season and the players who are putting their lives, and the lives of their families, on the line to play this season.

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