There was a time, in the spring of corona, when we wondered if sports would ever come back. But we now have two months’ worth of evidence that shows that sports can indeed go on during the pandemic.
The return of amateur sports such as college football is less likely, for various reasons. There’s the fact that they are linked to colleges and universities, which are currently suffering mightily from virus outbreaks. The players are also not paid, and liability concerns abound.
But expect the NFL to resume next week. Teams have been practicing and preparing for weeks now, and there’s nothing to suggest that the season or any games will get canceled at the last minute, though obviously things can change on a moment’s notice.
What should we expect the NFL to look like?
Well, the other professional sports that have been played for the better part of the summer offer us ample clues as to what it may feel like from the fan perspective.
Let’s begin with the fans themselves. Will they be present at games? Hard to say. Each state has its own guidelines as to whether fans will be allowed to congregate in the stands. Because of this, each team has its own plan for the fall. To summarize, some teams will have no fans indefinitely; some teams will not have fans at first, but will later; and some teams will start their seasons with fans present in a limited capacity. For those who have fans, expect social distancing to be strictly enforced.
For those without fans, expect the NFL to do what the NBA, MLB and NHL have done. There will be cutouts of fans in some places. In others, there will be screens or banners so that when you are watching the players on the field you will not see rows and rows of empty seats behind them. Expect the cameras to be working overtime so that your attention is focused on the players themselves, and not on who may or may not be watching them. Lastly, expect there to be fan noise piped in. This helps to normalize the games for both fans and players.
Expect sidelines to be spread out so that players can social distance when on the bench. There will be players and coaches wearing masks, for the most part.
How about the play itself? Will players be able to avoid spreading the virus while playing the major sport with the most contact?
That’s the million-dollar question. As mentioned, players have been practicing for weeks. Teams have for the most part avoided any outbreaks.
However, most teams have not been going as hard in practice as they will in games. Could an infected player infect others when they are in a giant pig pile fighting over a loose ball? It’s very possible, though in theory all players are tested frequently enough that an infected one would not make it onto the field in the first place.
And what of social justice? Will the NFL look different in that regard?
An unequivocal yes. The league has already stated that they support players kneeling before games. Players and coaches have been outspoken about wanting to use their platforms to affect change in our society.
Though there are some elements of our society who are resisting it, the explanation of what is happening in 2020 is really quite simple. America is confronting racism in a way that most of us have never experienced before. The old ways won’t do anymore. There’s too much evidence that Black people in particular but people of color in general do not always have the same rights as white Americans. The most obvious and tragic disparity is the manner in which Black people experience policing in this country. But systemic racism has invaded nearly every aspect of our society, from education to the workplace to housing.
Sports is a big enough pillar in America such that our country doesn’t change without sports also changing. And vice-versa. As sports go, so does society. Or something like that.
The pandemic has exposed what many are calling our nation’s pre-existing condition, systemic racism. We need to fight it and the virus simultaneously as if our lives depended on it. Hint: they do.
In summary, the NFL is just around the corner, but it won’t look like before. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t look at it through the new sets of 2020 eyes that all of us have had to develop in a kind of real-time evolution.
If you do want a source of comfort to connect you to all of your past football experiences, I recommend chicken wings—the spicier the better. You could dust off your favorite recipe, or, better yet, consider ordering takeout from your favorite small business. They, like each of us, could use a little extra support during this annus horribilis.