The New England Patriots flew to Kansas City on Monday morning to play a game a few hours later against the Chiefs, which is odd enough but not the oddest part of their trip itinerary.
The Patriots took two planes — one carrying players and team employees who had been in close contact with quarterback Cam Newton, who tested positive for coronavirus. Everyone else flew on the other plane.
The Vikings had their normal routine — their new COVID-19 normal — upended last week by an outbreak inside the Tennessee Titans’ locker room. The Vikings had their facility evacuated, underwent twice-a-day testing and followed more stringent health protocols right up until a few hours before kickoff Sunday in Houston.
And the Titans? Who knows when they will play again after having 20 positive cases inside the organization.
All of this was predictable, which doesn’t make the NFL a heartless, greedy monster for trying to play a season. Instead, this was an inevitable outcome in a precarious pursuit, however crass that might sound.
This circumstance has caused some to re-examine whether playing football during a pandemic is a good idea, or at the very least, whether the NFL should have insisted on conducting business inside a protective bubble.
Players were not going to agree to a bubble, and frankly, I can’t blame them. Even now, after a disruptive and scary week for multiple teams, a bubble would be a tough sell.
Just imagine the logistics and what would be required of them. There are 12 games left in the season — three months. Then playoffs.
That’s three months, at a minimum, that players, coaches, support staff and team employees — a contingent easily in excess of 100 people per team — would be isolated in a hotel away from their families and their homes. Just so we can be entertained on Sundays.
If they had opted for a bubble arrangement at the start of training camp, the quarantine would have lasted five-plus months. Each NFL team’s personnel ecosystem is so expansive that, realistically, the league would need 32 separate bubbles.
The NHL just concluded its bubble season. Teams in the Stanley Cup Final spent two months inside the bubble, which probably felt like an eternity.
Now multiply that stay by two. Or longer.
I just can’t see NFL players accepting that option.
Bubbles have proved effective in providing insulation to ward off the virus. The NBA, WNBA and NHL successfully resumed their seasons with minimal issues, if any, inside bubble settings in Florida and Canada.
MLB and NFL elected to create quasi-bubbles knowing positive tests, or even outbreaks, were likely because players and employees were free to return to their homes at night and teams would travel around the country to games.
MLB’s plan appeared doomed when a few teams experienced outbreaks early in the season. The schedule needed to be massaged and rearranged on occasion, but otherwise, baseball was able to reach the finish line — complete the regular season before moving inside a bubble for the postseason.
Football will be trickier for obvious reasons. Contact sport. Significantly more personnel involved in the operation. Longer season. The speed at which the virus spread through the Titans organization showed just how quickly a team can get shut down.
The bubble idea popped up again in response to that crisis, but it’s too late for that now. The league is hoping strict protocols and tough penalties for those who violate rules will work. The NFL tightened policies again Monday in a memo to teams that read like a principal cracking down on students who aren’t following rules.
The likelihood that every team plays 16 games seems far less certain now. This whole thing could fall apart if more outbreaks happen.
The NFL absolutely should create a bubble for the playoffs, which shouldn’t be too daunting with fewer teams involved. But with three-quarters of the season left? Yes, a bubble would probably prevent what took place last week. But isolating 32 teams at this juncture just seems impractical.
That comes with a trade-off. Punishment must be severe for those who violate protocols. The league is threatening steep fines and loss of drafts picks, which should get everyone’s attention.
Accountability is the only way this can work outside of a bubble.