Baseball sounded the warning.
Will football hear it?
While baseball has (so far) managed to stave off canceling its season, the ripple effects of coronavirus outbreaks among teams leave plenty of doubt they can still make it to the finish line. Choosing to play outside a bubble like the ones employed by the NBA and NHL meant baseball was always at risk for something like this, and a Marlins team that returned to play Tuesday night with 18 new players was a powerful reminder about the need to follow protocols.
The NFL has to be watching, and not simply to see in real time what its own sport will be up against come fall, but for what it can learn from one whose approach to playing during the pandemic is most similar to its own.
The NFL wants desperately to find the formula to play, and not simply to preserve the revenue stream available in billions of television dollars, but to help preserve the last shreds of sanity in a house-bound, sports-starved audience. Baseball is providing a road map.
In the wake of confessions by Marlins CEO Derek Jeter that members of the team’s traveling party simply got too comfortable and neglected to be vigilant about wearing masks and socially distancing — comfort he said was bolstered by making it through spring training 2.0 without a positive test — the NFL would be wise to heed his warnings.
So far, the message seems to be resonating, and here’s hoping Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones represents the rule rather than the exception on what NFL players are thinking.
“The big key to the season is making sure guys buy in to make everyone else safe,” Jones said during a video conference Wednesday. “Understanding that decisions outside the facility just don’t affect you, but other guys and their families too.
“That’s the big key to the season, everyone holding each other accountable, keeping each other safe and each other’s families safe.”
Jones didn’t have to mention the Marlins by name, but Florida neighbor and Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick certainly had them in mind when he spoke with reporters last week. Calling what happened across baseball “eye-opening,” Fitzpatrick said it was “a good example for everyone in the NFL trying to get this going how easily it’s passed.”
That was the point Jeter repeatedly made Monday, when he also made it clear he was not looking to assign blame, but to issue a wakeup call — not just about games that can always be rescheduled, but to human beings who deserve some empathy after contracting the highly contagious virus.
“The entire traveling party is responsible for not following the protocols as instructed, and that includes coaches, staff, and players,” Jeter said. “Everyone has seen the impact, they’ve seen teammates get sick, and I know we all have a new level of appreciation. Hopefully this is a wakeup call for everyone, not only on our team but the rest of baseball and sports in general.
“Moving forward, MLB has upped the protocols, made some changes to protocols, and we have as well. You just can’t make any mistakes, that’s the bottom line. We’ve been given the opportunity to hit the reset button, and moving forward we just cannot make any mistakes here.”
That’s a tough bar to meet, but the impact of the outbreaks in baseball has been harrowing enough to make it necessary. A 60-game season is short by baseball standards, but it still offers far more flexibility to restore competitive balance than a 17-week football season ever could.
Doubleheaders, even at seven innings apiece, are better than forfeits, but there are only so many off days and only so many doubleheaders a team can handle. While replacement players have always been a part of sports and the “next man up” approach certainly can be stretched beyond its traditional application, injuries don’t often come by the dozen.
For now, baseball continues playing even as the Marlins and Cardinals put players in quarantine, even as the Phillies and Yankees make up the collateral damage to their own schedules. But the solutions will be much tougher to come by in football, where game plans are inherently more complicated and contact is inevitably closer. The best possibility for success is in following protocol, and more so away from the game than in it.
Teams can control what goes on in their buildings, but they have to trust players and other personnel to do the right thing on their own time, which is why the return-to-play agreement between the NFL Players Association and the league included fines or suspensions for high-risk activity. Among the violations are attending indoor nightclubs with more than 10 people, not wearing PPE in said nightclubs, attending a house gathering with more than 15 people without everyone wearing masks, attending an indoor concert or entertainment event, and attending a sporting event unless seated in a separate section.
Jeter denied any such activities among his employees, blaming coffee runs, picking up clothing, or having dinner at a teammate’s house and not wearing masks or maintaining distance. Either way, the upshot is the same: Take the protocols seriously.
“I hope people look at what happened to us and they use that as a warning, just see how quickly this is able to spread between a particular group if you’re not following protocols 100 percent,” he said. “You can’t let your guard down whatsoever. That’s the bottom line.
“We’re battling something that’s invisible here. You can’t see it, you don’t know how it starts, but once it gets there, it has an opportunity to spread quickly. We’ve seen that.”
The blame game is easy. And maybe it has a modicum of importance in understanding what went wrong. The learning game is a bit harder. But it’s the one football should be playing right now.
No one can predict what the virus will look like when the season is due to start; no one knows if there is another wave of infection coming that might change the playing field anyway. But for now, baseball is teaching a lesson, and football would be wise to follow.