The NFL’s complicated relationship with COVID-19

Recently, the NFL has recommended that players on the sidelines who do not participate in games or are not about to play on the field wear protective masks. Moreover, the league has also recommended that there be increased physical distancing of players on the sidelines.

This proposed change would involve all 32 teams making their bench area bigger. It is worth noting that the NFL never mandated the wearing of masks on the sidelines; however, they say it is “strongly encouraged” for players who don’t play or active players who are in the bench area for an extended period of time during a game.

“A player wearing a mask during a close contact has a significantly reduced probability of being designated a ‘High Risk Close Contact’ after an exposure to a COVID-positive individual,” an NFL memo read.

Quoting a player who had close contact with 17 other players and two team staffers as they were on the sidelines for an extended period of time during a game, the memo read, “we are strongly recommending that clubs continue to implement measures to encourage physical distancing among players and staff on the sidelines during games.”

The NFL is still considering expanding the bench area further down the sideline. Teams might also look to see if they can reconfigure the bench area, or even add more benches. The league said that, “assistant coaches and members of the football staff should pay particular attention to ensuring that players remain separated while waiting to enter the game, as well as avoiding grouping or bunching.”

Dawn Aponte, chief football administrative officer of the NFL, said, “It’s really a look at how we can expand that physical distancing on the sideline. The distancing and face-masking are critical,” and “every week we are learning something and trying to share best practices with our clubs.”

The league is trying to be proactive given the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus. They are even offering more testing for bus drivers that are reserved by teams from the away city before the team’s arrival. Moreover, the NFL has dealt with coaches who have not obeyed COVID-19 protocols. This includes forcing coaches such as Pete Carroll and Jon Gruden to pay $100,000 fines for not obeying the rules. In addition, teams have been fined up to $250,000 for not obeying COVID-19 rules on the sidelines.

“We do try to remain in constant communication with the clubs through memos, phone calls, conference calls, one-offs, trying to remind and educate,” Aponte said. “Everyone needs to lead by example. It is more so about trying to educate and get everyone to adhere to the face-covering protocol.”

Both the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots have encountered significant outbreaks of COVID-19, forcing them to change their schedules. Several other teams have had isolated cases.

“We have to continue to reinforce all the messages about risk mitigation, something we can never say enough,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer. “I think it just speaks to the need to be diligent all the time.”