NFL COVID-19 regulations can’t be just words on a page

Pat Leonard, New York Daily News
·6 min read

When the NFL ramped up its pregame and postgame mask protocols in a Nov. 3 memo to all 32 teams, the league left no gray area on what type of violations would invite discipline.

If teams permit interactions on the field before and after games, “all players and club staff must wear masks or double-layered gaiters during any such encounter — no matter how brief — to mitigate risk of transmission,” the NFL’s management council wrote.

“Clubs that fail to enforce the requirement that players and staff wear an approved face covering during such encounters will be subject to accountability measures,” the memo added.

Fast forward five days to the Saints-Bucs Sunday Night Football blowout, though, and Tom Brady and Drew Brees defied these new rules on national television, drawing close for a postgame embrace and conversation with no masks.

Minutes later, Saints corner Janoris Jenkins went live on Instagram from New Orleans' locker room, where a dance party had broken out. Saints players weren’t wearing masks and appeared to be doing nothing out of the ordinary from previous years. A circle of players formed around dancing backup QB Jameis Winston.

This also flew in the face of the NFL’s Nov. 3 memo: “All players and staff must wear masks or double-layered gaiters in the locker room on game day — prior to the game, during halftime and postgame.”

So what did the NFL do about it? Well, nothing other than a warning, it sounds like.

Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, excused in a conference call this week that “it’s hard to change” the routine of postgame sportsmanship “overnight.”

“Sending one memo is a difficult way to change an ingrained pattern of behavior that’s gone on for many years,” Sills said. “What we’re trying to do is to show everyone the vulnerability and also show ways we can do it safely.”

Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive VP of football operations, assured “everyone’s held accountable.” Then he said that accountability in these sorts of cases amounted to a warning.

“The intent is never to fine a club (or) fine a player,” Vincent said. “We typically start with a warning, we share with them what we saw, what that entails from an exposure standpoint, and eventually we’ll have to hold people accountable whether that’s the coach, whether that’s the players, but that is not the intent. The intent is really just to try to change and curb the behavior so that we can get through the season.”

Granting how much hard work Sills, Vincent and the NFL have put in to complete this season safely, however, the league cannot be in the business of threatening clear discipline in print, only to excuse it with a warning in practice.

If the NFL’s COVID memos don’t mean what they say, what is the incentive for teams to listen?

And how is a team like the Giants supposed to feel, for example, if they are taking extreme precautions and following the letter of the law, only to see other teams being lax with no penalty?

“We’ve got to make sure we stay proactive with things and not think we’re past it,” Giants coach Joe Judge said Friday of the Giants' successfully preventing a spread in their building after offensive guard Will Hernandez’s recent positive test and two-game absence. “You see every day a different team has something pop up, different tests. The biggest warnings you get from teams who have dealt with this over the long term is the duration of how tests pop up. It’s kinda like weeds. You think you’d pulled them all out, and there’s one growing right underneath the other one.”

The NFL sent a bad message already earlier in the season when they slapped the Titans on the wrist with a $350,000 fine and claimed minimal wrongdoing on Tennessee’s part after investigating, despite rampant apparent evidence to the contrary.

It was alarming to me, too, that the league and players' union were able to review closed circuit camera footage in team facilities to conduct such an investigation. Can’t imagine NFL executives and coaches responded too well to the realization that could happen to them.

The league did hammer the Las Vegas Raiders with a $500,000 fine, a $150,000 fine for coach Jon Gruden, and the removal of a sixth-round draft choice for being repeat offenders.

But then it turned around and simply wagged its finger at offenders last week, rather than making an example out of those who treated the NFL’s latest memo like a complete joke.

I will say this: watching Thursday Night Football this week, I saw a ton of Titans and Colts players wearing masks as they approached each other after the game. It looked like Philip Rivers decided to just leave his helmet on as a masked Ryan Tannehill approached.

Sills and Vincent said they’d seen compliance already in plenty of Week 9 games, also, and that’s great.

But it’s important to be consistent, and it’s critical to have zero tolerance for everyone’s health and safety, especially if you say you’re going to. Otherwise, no one has incentive to even read the next memo that goes out.

POSSIBLE PLAYOFF EXPANSION, AND MORE

NFL owners unanimously approved a contingency plan this week to expand the playoff field from 14 to 16 teams if meaningful games can’t be played due to COVID-19. If that happens, the league will not re-seed teams.

The NFL first would try to reschedule postponed regular season games in an extra Week 18. But if that’s not possible, they would enact this 16-team playoff scenario.

The NFL already expanded the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams in the offseason collective bargaining agreement prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, adding a third wild card spot to each conference.

For now, seven teams will make the playoffs in each conference, with only the top team in each conference earning a bye.

Meanwhile, the NFL’s owners also approved a resolution that will award NFL teams compensatory third-round picks if they see minority coaches and/or front office executives leave to earn head coaching or GM jobs elsewhere. This provides major incentive for clubs to develop better pipelines for minority candidates

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