The COVID-19 outbreak that clobbered baseball's Miami Marlins, which forced MLB to scramble to rework its schedule, is a window into the chaos that potentially awaits the NFL as training camps open this week.
The NFL and its players' union hammered out a variety of comprehensive safety protocols in order to get camps to open on time. NFL players, like those in MLB, will not live in a comprehensive bubble; instead, they'll practice and play in their home cities, and travel once the regular season is scheduled to begin in September. But it took less than one weekend of MLB play for the Marlins to confront a major outbreak while they were in Philadelphia. It's a clear indication the virus is going to dictate whether and how the NFL will proceed.
The NFL's acknowledged this, by the way. Allen Sills, the league's medical director, has done a number of interviews in recent days in which he's mentioned that the NFL anticipates players and team personnel will contract the virus.
"And that’s true as long as the virus remains endemic in society," Sills told The Washington Post's Mark Maske. "New cases will kind of be part of that reality."
Sills then told Maske this: "But what's important is that we have protocols in place to identify these cases as quickly as possible and then to take the appropriate action once we identify them to get that individual separated away from the team environment and to get them that treatment and try to prevent an outbreak on the team."
There's a kind of hubris to this logic. Even though football is a contact sport that involves frequent personnel changes, the league is confident it can comfortably manage the virus by playing a kind of Russian roulette with it. But what the Marlins' situation indicates is how rapidly a coronavirus infection can tear its way through a sports franchise - protocols be damned.
"It surprised and scared me, quite honestly," Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, told me. "This was off the charts in terms of how bad something could get this fast. I would suspect it could rip through an NFL team - which involves more people and more contact - even faster."
Like the NFL, MLB crafted detailed safety procedures, with each team reportedly required to come up with an action plan for handling positive tests while on the road. The Marlins' case shows how easy it can be for the best-laid plans to fall through the cracks: According to Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer, after the team learned Sunday that its starting pitcher and two other players tested positive for COVID-19, players chose to play that afternoon against the Phillies by taking a vote via group text.
Breen also reported the Marlins never considered not playing, and they followed protocol by reporting what happened to the MLB-MLBPA committee that oversees the league's testing and monitoring plan. By Tuesday morning, 15 members of the team's traveling party had tested positive.
The NFL's 42-page COVID-19 camp protocols state that each team is required to develop an Infectious Disease Emergency Response plan (IDER) "that sets forth the Club’s plan for containing an outbreak of disease (in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic)." The teams' plans are to be built off a baseline plan jointly approved by the NFL and NFLPA. According to the NFLPA's website, such plans have been approved for 25 of the league's 32 teams, with the other seven still being reviewed.
It's not clear what items are covered in any of those IDER plans regarding dealing with outbreaks; the rundown ESPN's Dan Graziano got from a source with access to the Detroit Lions' IDER focused largely on disinfection procedures and upgrades to the HVAC system at the facility.
Sills acknowledged there are circumstances in which the league might have to shut a team down or postpone games or even declare forfeits in the event of an outbreak. But he's carefully avoided mentioning any kind of threshold for what might trigger a stoppage. Instead, Sills told Maske, outbreaks would be evaluated case by case, with input from the NFLPA, public health officials, and infectious disease experts.
On its face, this seems like a prudent approach. "Adaptability and flexibility will be needed for the foreseeable future," commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a public letter released Monday. But viewed another way, there's something ghoulish about all of this: unless or until a player, coach, or staffer dies or winds up on a ventilator, everything remains theoretical, and there's no reason to stop.
The animating principle here, as it so often tends to be, is money. Axios reported that MLB stands to lose more than $500 million in national TV ads if it were to cancel the season. The NFL's stake is likely much higher. Which is why both seem so intent on pressing forward.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the Associated Press reported Tuesday that 6,400 tests have been done across MLB since Friday and there have been no other positive results among on-field personnel for any other team. For now, MLB dodged the worst-case scenario, but the virus shone a light through one of the biggest holes: it's probably not the smartest idea to allow players to make decisions about whether to play.
"The NFL and MLB's plans are broadly similar in important ways - the fact that teams are playing in home markets, personnel are living at home with their families in the community, and on the honor system not to engage in risky behavior," Binney told me. "They're trying to pull off the Bundesliga plan, but here in the U.S. where the virus is out of control, versus Germany where it's been handled much better. Whether that would work was always a real gamble, and if it doesn't work for MLB I have real worries about how it will work for the NFL."
One scenario Sills definitively ruled out was the possibility of a bubble concept not unlike what the NBA, NHL, WNBA, and NWSL have used. The logistics make the possibility of an NFL bubble - or even multiple bubbles - virtually impossible. But Binney said a bubble may be the only way for a sports team to truly contain the virus, given how much community spread there continues to be throughout multiple U.S. hotspots.
"We're reaping what we sowed," he said.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.