A battle for the soul of the world, the future of democracy, raged across multiple continents. Throughout America, manpower was down and the public distracted. The punditry wondered openly if the NFL could go on. Or if it even should go on.
“For professional sports, the easiest method would be to call the whole thing off,” Packers founder/general manager/coach Curly Lambeau declared in 1942. “But what kind of example would that be for the youngster who looks to the stars for guidance and inspiration?
“Only one course is open to sports. That is, carry on without regard to the sacrifice. This is no time for sports to look for a profit!”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would probably like to have a quick word about that last point. But when it comes to the NFL and COVID-19, the premise still stands, eight decades after the fact. Even as a worldwide pandemic has cast the fate of football — especially football west of the Great Plains — into the wind.
“They had to play their game,” noted Joe Horrigan, the former executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and author of “NFL Century, the 100-Year Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League.” “It was the right thing to do for the country to have a sense of normalcy.”
We miss that normalcy more than ever now.
Pro football has had to draft a playbook for the coronavirus on the fly: The NFL was founded in September 1920, roughly two years after the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the last viral outbreak to affect American life, American gatherings and American entertainment to this degree.
While playing pro football during a pandemic is new, navigating a national crisis isn’t. In its first century, the NFL has weathered the Great Depression, World War II, the assassination of President Kennedy, 9-11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession, in addition to its own stretches of labor strife. And the bottom line for Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn’t veered much from Lambeau’s rallying cry:
Carry on. Without regard to the sacrifice.
“I believe this pandemic has the ability to be more challenging because it is a silent enemy, so to speak,” said Jon Kendle, Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “A player may be healthy for most of the season, and then before a critical game that player might test positive and miss a game or two that impacts that team’s season.
“However, these are challenges that NFL teams are used to dealing with, (things) typically related to injury, not necessarily illness.”
“The NFL has always stood out”
Even for a league that’s used to national hiccups, the most popular — and powerful — sport in this country has never seen a hiccup quite like this. Preseason games were canceled outright, the first mass elimination of scheduled NFL contests since a strike wiped out Week 3 of the 1987 regular season.
“I do think sports play a significant role in bringing people to pay attention to diseases and these types of issues,” said Michael H. Gavin, author of “Sports in the Aftermath of Tragedy: From Kennedy to Katrina.” “Until the NBA shut down, people were like, ‘This isn’t a real disease, and it’s nothing to worry about.’ I wouldn’t even put (the death) of JFK and 9-11 up there as far as how nationally significant this moment is.”
The difference? Uncertainty. Unpredictability. While the homogenized bubble environments arranged by the NBA and NHL have mitigated COVID-19 spread among players, coaches and staff, Major League Baseball’s attempts to play regionalized schedules with true home/away environments have been waylaid by a number of postponements. What the NFL has learned from MLB’s missteps is that no matter how soundly you isolate and test players during workdays, practices and games, it’s a greater challenge when those same players start interacting with the outside world and outside your purview.
“Teams and players rely on structure and schedule,” Kendle said. “This pandemic has changed and challenged both of those things. No offseason, no preseason games. It will be interesting to see what the first month of the season feels like.”
The MLB’s venture into The Age of Coronavirus has also shown the NFL the need for flexibility and adaptation, particularly where rosters and schedules — especially TV schedules — are concerned.
In that, Kendle noted, some precedent for adaptation can be found in World War II, when NFL rosters were decimated by players who were serving in the military. Rather than fold the franchises that were the hardest hit, the Steelers merged with the Eagles to form one squad — the “Steagles” — in 1943, with Pittsburgh having to field a joint team with the Chicago Cardinals, dubbed “Card-Pitt,” in 1944.
“However, I do believe the NFL has always stood out and come to the aid of the United States in times of crisis,” Kendle continued. “Just as America’s general population rallied behind the war effort of World War II, so too did the NFL. One such endeavor was the selling of war bonds, an activity that generated $4 million worth of sales for the effort in 1942 alone. The NFL also donated the revenues from 15 exhibition games to service charities.”
The games generated $680,384.07 — reportedly the largest amount raised by a single athletic organization, Kendle said.
“Decades later, the NFL came to aid the Louisiana community after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina,” he added. “The community needed the New Orleans Saints and NFL and they stepped up and provided support, money and entertainment. I believe the NFL, its club members and its players don’t get the credit they deserve for what they provide communities all over the country.”
“I have less faith in the NFL”
Those communities have also been affected in 2020 by protests, some of them violent, against systemic racism — concerns elevated to the national conversation in recent months following the deaths of African-Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor after run-ins with police in Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky., respectively.
Those causes haven’t been lost on NFL players. Given that seven out of 10 players on league rosters are Black, most observers expect kneeling during the national anthem to become more of a norm and not an exception — as was the case when the demonstration made former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick one of the most divisive athletes in America.
If wearing of masks has caused political upheavals in your neighborhood, just wait until the NFL kicks off.
“I don’t think (the NFL) has done a great job at understanding the ramifications of some of the decisions that they’ve made in the past,” Gavin said. “I go back to how they’ve handled (Colin) Kaepernick, how they handle sexual violence. The higher levels of the NFL have not really understood the culture, and the role sports play in the culture, the way that (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver did.
“Their past behavior has not necessarily showed them to be … empathetic toward people that are marginalized. And those are the same people who are playing for them.
“Also, in a full-contact sport, I don’t know how you stop the spread of an infectious disease. You’ve seen MLB go through this. I guess I have less faith in the NFL than the other sports to connect with the public.”
Still, both Kendle and Horrigan have faith that the season, no matter how choppy the waters get, will make it to the finish line. And to the Super Bowl in Tampa.
“They seem to have solid systems in place for all teams and facilities,” Kendle said. “They continue to be flexible and diligent with their testing. It may be different Monday through Saturday at the team facilities, but on Sundays, it will still just be football.”
Now and again, history shines a light. When fate forces the NFL to punt into the wind, the paradigm says the league almost always refers back to that Lambeau Leap.
Carry on. Without regard to the sacrifice.
“This all comes back to another thing, and this is the social responsibility that pro sports, about (how) the NFL has been ahead of everybody else in the sense of addressing the whys and hows and when we help,” Horrigan said. “Just (last month) the Packers were talking about Lambeau Field being converted into a voting center. And this isn’t a political thing, but it’s a statement about health.
“So I keep my fingers crossed. If anybody can do it, it’s the NFL. If anybody will show the leadership that it takes, I think, to make tough decisions when they need to be made, it’s also the NFL.”
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