Other’s opinion: Up next up in COVID times: The NFL

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, September 2, 2020

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Star Tribune

It’s a minor injustice of the pandemic — emphasis on “minor,” because there are clearly more significant ones — that the disruption occurred during a year when both the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings were expected to be contenders. For that reason, the teams’ long-suffering and occasionally triumphant-slash-tantalized fans would like to see them competing.

Not just for that reason, though. As we argued a few months ago when Major League Baseball was sidling up to its plan for playing amid the pandemic, pro sports are important to the rhythms of normal life. The money they generate ripples through other industries. Additionally — although this point will elicit divided opinions — they are an influential part of the cultural conversation, as demonstrated in recent days by work stoppages in the NBA and other leagues over racial injustice.

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These are the high-minded rationales, anyway. Another is simply that people like sports.

A few weeks ago, two Minnesotans of national prominence — Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari and University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm — wrote a commentary for the New York Times (reprinted in the Star Tribune at tinyurl.com/covid-contain) that recommended a strict new national shutdown in order to gain control over the coronavirus once and for all. For now, that’s not a path Americans appear willing to accept. Life goes on, with restrictions and adaptations.

Perhaps a more attainable near-term response is to improve the nation’s overall approach to risk. As pediatrician Aaron E. Carroll argues in a separate New York Times commentary (also republished at StarTribune.com; tinyurl.com/cumulative-behavior), too many people view protective measures as all-or-nothing. Instead, he contends, we need to see that our behavior “adds up.” And that “as we loosen restrictions in some areas, we should be increasing restrictions in others.”

Football, with its grunt-and-snort, mud-and-blood demeanor, would not seem super-well-suited to safety in the presence of a communicable disease. It certainly isn’t worth the risk for college or high school players, for whom it isn’t yet a chosen profession offering compensation, at a minimum, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But NFL players have a job to do, like others during the pandemic. (Though, unlike others, they had the option of opting out, as 67 did.)

The league won’t be operating in a strict bubble, as the NBA has done by containing all of its activities to a complex in Florida. But the football teams are nonetheless following solid protocols, including daily testing. Aside from an aberrative situation involving false positives, the safety measures have worked well at training camps. (Major League Baseball, also with traveling teams, had a scare at the start of its delayed season but has been able to continue play with occasional postponements.)

That leaves the question of having at least some fans in the stands, which won’t happen initially but is a goal for later in the NFL season.

A stadium is large and airy, of course, but other parts of the experience — concourses, concession stands, restrooms — are riskier environments. Vikings fans hoping to see the action in person at U.S. Bank Stadium also should note that Minnesota is categorized by the Covid Exit Strategy website as “trending poorly” in its case growth, and that some neighboring states, from which the team also draws fans, are doing still worse. In fact, Dr. Deborah Birx, the top White House COVID-19 adviser, has been visiting the Midwest, including Minnesota this past weekend, to urge discipline in limiting new cases before the cold weather arrives and focuses activities indoors. We’ll take what messaging we can get from the erratic Trump administration.

Meanwhile, the Twins are more than halfway through their short season and, despite a recent slump, are indeed competitive. The Vikings will start their schedule Sept. 13 at home against — who better? — the Packers.

All of it is tentative. We learn a bit every day about what works and what doesn’t against the spread of COVID-19. (Or about what works until it doesn’t.) The NFL will do just fine without fans in the stands. With the luck of timing and other fortunes, it’ll enjoy a full, uninterrupted season. That said, it must remain willing to — pardon the expression — punt.