Give the NFL credit for being so transparent about its cynicism.
Last weekend, as the Broncos were forced to play the Saints without a quarterback, and before the Ravens' junior-varsity matchup at the Steelers' varsity squad had been finalized as a midweek after-school special, the league made an all-out push to remind the world of its pandemic priorities.
"On Sunday," NBC's Peter King wrote, "the NFL began emphasizing with its media partners a memo sent from Roger Goodell to teams on Oct. 13 that said, basically, that the league would play games if enough warm bodies were available to fill the uniforms and an internal-team contagion wasn’t in progress."
Sure enough, a casual stroll through NFL media Twitter revealed multiple references to that mid-October memo, which stated things as plainly as King described. After leading with some quick boilerplate about health and safety, Goodell's memo cut right to the chase:
We will make all reasonable efforts, consistent with underlying health and safety principles, to play all regular and postseason games. This is grounded in a commitment to our players, fans, and business partners.
We will make all reasonable efforts to play our games within the current 17-week schedule.
In light of the substantial additional roster flexibility in place for this season, absent medical considerations, games will not be postponed simply to avoid roster issues caused by injury or illness affecting multiple players, even within a position group.
If that meant the Broncos would have to trot out a practice-squad wide receiver at quarterback against one of the league's best defenses on a day's notice, so be it. If it meant the Ravens would have to suit up without their starting quarterback, tight end, running backs, and most of their offensive line, even after three postponements delayed the game by six days, them's the breaks. If it means the 49ers will have to play their next two "home" games in a county where the COVID-19 infection rate is nearly twice as high as their own? Too bad. The show must go on.
The commissioner's mid-October memo articulated the league's "commitment to our players, fans, and business partners," but it's always been obvious which of those constituencies ranks No. 1. What is new is that the NFL isn't bothering to pretend otherwise. The pandemic is just another public relations headache for the league, a stubborn inconvenience to power through, so long as few people notice what's being sacrificed or who's assuming the most risk.
It's true the Broncos' quarterbacks created the problem by violating the league's COVID-19 protocols, and they'll likely be punished for that, as they should be. But how is health and safety a priority when Kendall Hilton was thrust into the breach with so little understanding of what he was doing? "The problem with the Broncos-Saints game is not that it was a terrible or uneven game," The Ringer's Nora Princiotti wrote. "The problem is that it could have been a lot worse."
By requiring Denver's game to proceed as scheduled while allowing the Ravens multiple postponements, the NFL also played right into the stupidest instincts of so much of America's scattershot coronavirus response. The Broncos are getting screwed by the league office! The league office got played by the Ravens! The point was that the Broncos did not have a widespread outbreak, but rather isolated cases that needed to be contained, while the Ravens had an actual outbreak that had to be traced to be stopped. But by handling both situations in ways that looked markedly different, the league made it easy to feed conspiratorial claims - the most 2020 of American pastimes.
The NFL had established a contingency for adding a Week 18 slate of games. But what was gained by having the Ravens, with a patchwork roster, take the field against the undefeated Steelers after having barely practiced for more than a week? As midweek counterprogramming to "Paw Patrol," to boot? In the hours before kickoff, Goodell held a conference call with reporters during which he described the league's primary concern in no uncertain terms:
The game was a farcical display of dropped passes, an end-zone interception, a missed extra point, and a 70-yard touchdown pass thrown by a third-string quarterback - and that's a rundown of stuff that happened to the Steelers, who nonetheless managed to win.
The subtext of Goodell's "remarkable achievement" comment is that the NFL is less concerned with serving up a substandard product than it is with having a product to serve. "You're left with the realization that the whole and sole reason to stage this ridiculous contest, to jam it in midweek during soap opera hours, was to deliver inventory of any quality to a television network, in order to fulfill broadcast agreements," Defector's Chris Thompson wrote. This is how the NFL demonstrates its commitment to its fans. Shit is what happens to be on the menu, so for the good of The Shield, you're all going to have to eat shit.
It was no less discouraging to hear George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association - the union that exists to protect players' interests - appear on a podcast to echo Goodell's talking points about the primacy of salvaging the season.
"I am not one who compliments the NFL lightly," Atallah told USA Today's Mike Jones on the "Football Jones" podcast. "People who know me and know what my role is, it's often to highlight the issues that they have or really (to) accentuate the problems in terms of the way they deal with stuff. I will say this year, though, they really have proved that they are putting player safety at the forefront."
The players wanted to play this season, and the NFLPA got the league to agree to a number of COVID-related protocols, including opt-outs. But there have been unintended consequences. Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III - who started for Lamar Jackson, who tested positive last week - told reporters after the Steelers game that players' family members have also been infected, and that "those things don't get reported." Griffin suffered a hamstring injury, which could have happened in any game, on any day. But he suggested something else about the context of this particular game.
"It's not about whether or not guys want to play," Griffin said. "It's about whether or not our safety is actually being taken into account. I can't say much more than that."
Griffin didn't need to elaborate. The NFL already did that for him. It's time to give credit where it's due.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer for theScore.