Matthew Judon was wearing a blue surgical mask as he spoke to reporters from behind a podium. He is a member of the hottest team in the National Football League, and he can see the Super Bowl from where he stands, and now there is another obstacle to that goal that may be more vexing than the Chiefs, Bills and Titans.
As he stood in front of a backdrop that includes many repetitions of the Patriots logo and those of two team sponsors, Judon was not required to be wearing this mask. The NFL has rules in place that require face coverings in certain situations for those players who chose to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, but Judon is not one of them.
“All we can say as leaders, or anybody, is protect yourself,” Judon, who leads the Patriots with 12.5 sacks, said Wednesday. “If you’re going outside, please wear a mask. Try not to spend time in places that you really don’t have to, when you can be at home.”
The NFL has a COVID problem. It is not unique in this. Everybody has a COVID problem. Again. It is our third trek through this nightmare, each journey perhaps less daunting than the one before, but each new visit carrying a burgeoning sense of exhaustion.
For once, though, we can say unequivocally the NFL has handled this issue as it should. In an environment that includes members of Congress making public jokes about the importance of masking, or arguing against messaging that stresses the importance of vaccination, the league has been firmly committed to fighting spread of the virus.
The league has required coaches and front office staff to be vaccinated, and recently to also receive a booster shot. In cooperation with the NFL Players Association, the league put in place rules and protocols in advance of the season designed to encourage vaccination, which has been, for roughly a year, the most efficient method of combating the spread and impact of COVID.
It can be argued those standards and practices are insufficient now. The NFLPA called for daily testing at league facilities to help mitigate the spread, which was a reasonable suggestion, though its simultaneous reference to an early September demand for that approach came off as mere grandstanding.
Whether it is the Omicron variant or just the changing weather forcing more people indoors more often, or both, the NFL has an issue with the virus that will dramatically impact this weekend’s games. There have been minor disruptions through the season, with such players as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Broncos tight end Noah Fant missing games because of positive tests. This is different, though, with 90 players on the league’s COVID list, including 17 with the Washington Football Team and 13 with the Rams. The Browns, who are scheduled to play Saturday afternoon against the Raiders, have 11 on the list and could be without quarterback Baker Mayfield, two starting offensive linemen, tight end Austin Hooper and wideout Jarvis Landry.
The NFL has not yet made any move in response to this. It has not changed the date of any week 15 games. It has not agreed to change its testing protocols. But the league and players association have been discussing whether to alter procedures.
In England’s Premier League, teams now will face enhanced protocols, including more frequent tests and a requirement to wear face coverings indoors and social distance where possible.
One thing the NFL should not consider: abandoning the “zero COVID” approach, a step advocated by many who, in the past, fought against masking, distancing and/or vaccination. Arguing for the league to allow COVID-positive players to participate on the grounds that serious illness has been an issue for few of them is a continuation of the denial in which too many public voices have engaged, loudly and dangerously. As is the case with vaccination of the young, this is not merely about whether those individuals will become ill, but who might become ill among those they contact.
The Omicron variant appears to be spreading more rapidly, according to experts, because it is more adept at infecting even those who have been properly vaccinated. “There will be a lot of breakthrough cases,” NYU Langone Health epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Lighter told the New York Times.
The evidence from studies elsewhere, though, particularly in South Africa, which has dealt with this strain for a longer period of time, is those breakthroughs rarely are causing serious COVID illness. Which increases the importance of vaccination and exacerbates the problems caused for – and by – those who have refused.
The league managed to complete a full season with no cancellations in 2020, when there was no vaccine available to the public until the very end and, even then, mostly restricted to those who required protection more than professional athletes did.
Every team in the league has five games remaining in the 2021 season. The teams at the top of the standings, such as Judon’s 9-4 Patriots, want to reach the Jan. 9 finish line in the best possible position to compete for the Super Bowl. The team’s near the top of the standings, such as Mayfield’s 7-6 Browns, want their playoff fates to be determined by as full a complement as possible of the team’s best players.
Judon’s advice might be a solid step in pursuit of this. There are no guarantees, as we have learned through the past 20 months, but depending on mere good fortune doesn’t appear to be a sound strategy.
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