The NFL hoped to learn from baseball’s COVID-19 mistakes. The troubling lessons began quickly.

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·8 min read

Major League Baseball was the canary in the coal mine.

If something was capable of going sideways for a league operating without a bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic, baseball would send a warning to the NFL. Football executives didn’t expect it to come so soon in the season — after a single weekend baseball series — nor did they anticipate the warning to be a full-blown air raid siren. But here we are, with the Miami Marlins already teetering on the brink with 15 players and two coaches testing positive for COVID-19.

The seemingly unforgivable sin? Playing a game almost immediately after the team allegedly knew that at least three players had tested positive for COVID-19.

That was the eyebrow-raiser for NFL teams. Rolling the dice with the likelihood of playing multiple infected players might be one of the first things that will end up separating the NFL from Major League Baseball. If there’s anything the NFL is taking away from MLB’s first huge mistake, it’s that an outbreak preceding a game isn’t going to be taken lightly. Especially if it means an NFL team would take the chance of sending out a team on Sunday that might have multiple infected players taking the field.

“Definitely a ‘no’,” said one NFL general manager, when asked if he’d risk playing with a swath of potentially infected players.

“No way,” said another. “Never.”

In NFL, no one wants to be culprit that ruined 2020 season

Here’s the thing about the NFL, and I think we’re about to learn this in the coming days: No franchise wants to risk the league’s entire season because it made a mistake. Nobody wants to be the reckless embarrassment. Nobody wants to be the gambling pariah. And more than anything, nobody wants to be the weak link that ultimately undercuts the vast amount of work that has gone into getting the 2020 season on track.

For that simple reason, we wasted some energy on Monday measuring what the Marlins’ outbreak means for the NFL. Why? If a huge swath of NFL players on one team suddenly came up positive on a Saturday, it’s very likely that Sunday will produce a forfeit rather than a situation where a team hopes for the best and ultimately ends up endangering another franchise, and by extension, the league and 2020 season.

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That’s what I believe. I don’t think an NFL team could get hit hard by multiple positive tests on a Saturday — knowing it had just taken a flight where the entire team was exposed to the coronavirus — and then take the field on a Sunday. It’s too risky to the rest of the league. And the NFL fraternity is too vicious when it comes to the grudge department to take that kind of chance.

This is why the baseball failures can be instructive, but also an example of why the NFL is the NFL and baseball is baseball. It’s the same reason why MLB went through an ugly and drawn-out labor dispute to even get this shortened season going — right up to the precipice of a cancellation — and the NFL somehow got itself on track with nothing more than a few minor bruises. Everyone involved was acutely aware of what was at stake. And neither side wanted to be the one that blew it up.

Now that responsibility is getting split into 32 fragments, with teams individually carrying the burden of not screwing it all up — whether through negligence or pride. It matters. From the best franchises in the league to the worst. Maybe even more to the worst because nobody wants to be branded with the lasting mistake of throwing an entire season and league into chaos.

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, left, Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi, center, and Andrew McCutchen, right, hold a black ribbon in support of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to a baseball game Friday, July 24, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly (L) kept his distance from Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi and outfielder Andrew McCutchen on Friday. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

What if an NFL team followed Marlins’ example?

That’s not to say the NFL is perfect and incapable of failure. Or that some franchise won’t crash and undercut this endeavor. Certainly, football could crater and end up as a longstanding example of what not to do in a pandemic. But that’s not going to happen because a team didn’t know what’s at stake. Everyone knows what is on the line here. And everyone knows how hard this is going to be. If you’re not convinced of that, then the $75 million allocated for rigorous COVID-19 testing (and maybe even more money when it’s all over) hasn’t sunk in.

From commissioner Roger Goodell to the bottom rung of the lowliest franchise, there is little question about what is on the line for football. Should the NFL pull this 2020 season off to completion, it will represent one of the single greatest joint accomplishments in the history of sports in North America. And it will will have been accomplished despite an almost unthinkable number of variables, moving parts and unforeseen pitfalls — thanks not only to the league office and team owners, but also the players and their families, the union and an army of support personnel.

Given the high volume of players, the physicality of the sport and the fact that the NFL is reaching for a full season, this is a more monumental undertaking than the combined efforts of baseball, basketball and hockey. Particularly when it’s occurring without the safety net of a bubble or a hotline for snitches.

Make no mistake, the high level of difficulty in this endeavor creates an appreciation for this on teams. That’s what makes the whole Marlins fiasco so stunning to some of the people who run NFL teams. They can’t imagine compounding one bad situation with another, which is exactly what the Marlins did when they had a handful of positive tests and then took a baseball field almost immediately after. All the while, the team was not only exposing itself to more positive virus results, but also the Philadelphia Phillies. It turned out to be a horrific gamble given the results of a wider outbreak in the immediate aftermath.

I don’t know baseball well enough to comment on the league’s institutional memory, but I can say this: an opposing NFL team and the league in general would never forget a franchise taking that kind of chance. If the NFL is anything, it’s both savage and vindictive. And for any team to run into a swath of positive tests and then trot out multiple players who might be infected with COVID-19 — the repercussions would be lasting. Especially if it led to another franchise being knocked off its axis and the NFL suddenly being plunged into turmoil.

If a team is in a position of authority and it endangers this entire NFL season out of stupidity or negligence, it’s going to be marked. There are going to be repercussions. That club would pay eventually, one way or another. Other franchise owners will remember. Other general managers and coaches will, too. You can’t simply take the avenue of Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who justified Miami taking the field under a COVID cloud by saying, “We’re taking risks every day. That’s what players all around the league are doing.”

Mattingly is right about the risks. But there is a difference between taking risks with potentially infected players and taking risks exposing those same players to someone else’s team. You do that in the NFL and you’re going to have some issues down the line. Executives, coaches and club owners in this league know it, even if their counterparts in other sports don’t.

That’s what baseball has taught the NFL — how to not be that league, or that team, or that player. Don’t put yourself in that predicament. The one where you turn labor negotiations into such a public brawl that it threatens to extinguish yet another season. The one where one of your youngest stars (Juan Soto) tests positive out of the gate and instantaneously exposes a gap in your system. And the one where you have an alarming number of positive tests on your team, but you press forward into a game because, well, it’s all a big risk anyway.

I have no doubt that Major League Baseball is making some mistakes that will ultimately help the NFL. But I also have no doubt that there’s a reason MLB lost its perch as the No. 1 sport in America and has long been left in the NFL’s rearview mirror. When it comes to the larger picture of what is at stake, the NFL has always steered clear of the line of ineptitude.

The Marlins and Major League Baseball crossed it quickly in 2020. And if anything, that will serve as one last daily reminder to the NFL of how important it is to get all of this as right as it can, as often as it can.

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