The Dumbest NFL Season Ever Is Almost Over

I wish I had more trouble being a football fan this year than I did.

Welcome back to Going Downs, a newsletter about the intersection of celebrity and politics.

Hi Everyone! It’s Claire’s husband and Going Downs football correspondent back for another mid-week newsletter. 

I wish I had more trouble being a football fan this year than I did. There probably shouldn’t have been an NFL season this year. And if you disagree with that, at least we can say that the fact that not only did the owners not even try any kind of bubble, but some even had THOUSANDS OF FANS in stadiums, was not CDC approved protocol.

Given the relative lack of COVID protocols considering some nations have been in total lockdown at various points in the last year, this NFL season really should have been a massive shit show. But, thanks to either luck and a little cooperation from reporters, football happened this year. Some games were played by ridiculously COVID-ravaged teams. Some games had to be moved. And fans have died. But, the season was ultimately as entertaining as any NFL season, and the best teams with the best quarterbacks advanced to the playoffs as per usual. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that this football season wasn’t incredibly stupid along the way. 

Like restaurants, retail stores, and every other sector of our economy, the NFL’s approach to COVID was to double down on Hygiene Theater rather than do things to contain the virus. It was never a question of controlling the virus but controlling bad PR around their decision not to take every step they could to contain the virus. 

While players were fined if they removed masks in gyms and players who had COVID were not allowed to play, teams composed of dozens of athletes and staffers traveled all over the country, often in close quarters. 

Sure, some fines were handed out for poor compliance. But all you had to do was turn on the television to see some member of the coaching staff not wearing a mask. And, of course, players did not wear masks on the field, and many did not wear them on the sidelines.

One crucial part of football’s hygiene theater required the participation of so-called “NFL Insiders” to promote the idea that the National Football League was doing all they could to stop the spread of COVID. Even a child can understand that in choosing to have a season, the NFL was putting people at risk. But, loyalty is valuable in sports media as in every other aspect of a capitalist economy. While plenty of great journalists and reporters work in football, these insiders are essentially a de facto PR wing of the leagues. 

Adam Schefter and Ian Rappaport are the most egregious with this stuff. And there is also Darren Rovell, who is not an insider but is so programmed to side with his corporate overlords, he does PR work for free. 

Adam Schefter unleashed this tweet about how “wise” and “aggressive” the Kansas City Chiefs were in stopping a COVID-positive barber from cutting the team’s hair this week as part of the NFL’s pre-Super Bowl propaganda campaign for a sport worn with helmets. Presumably, the haircut was indoors. And of course, if no football games were being played, there would be no players coming in contact with the barber who has COVID. Or maybe this barber wouldn’t have COVID at all. 

Regardless of your feelings on haircuts at the moment, the NFL did not employ some wise strategy against a duplicitous foe. They canceled some haircuts.

I have nothing personal against Adam Schefter. There are worse ways to make a living than carrying water for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the cartel of owners who employ him. But Schefter’s language of applauding the league for working to prevent circumstances of their own making has been a theme this year.

And he is not alone. Look at how the NFL justifies having thousands of fans in stadiums for games that take place in cities with lax COVID restrictions. 

In ESPN’s coverage of the Buffalo Bills’ choice to allow 7,000 fans in the stadium, stated “The team will work with the state's Department of Health to conduct contact tracing afterward.” and “Fans will be socially distanced throughout the stadium, with masks required at all times. Fans who fail to comply will be ejected.” It did not note that the act of allowing fans in the stadium was sure to put fans, players, staff, and hundreds of associated workers at risk. 

The NFL’s in-house media apparatus took a similar tack in their reporting on Super Bowl attendance, which will be “capped” at 25,000 fans and an additional 30,000 cardboard cutouts (lol).

Messaging floating around the news world has been that the fans will be totally comprised of vaccinated healthcare workers - as a thank you to them for their essential work with the virus. However, the fine print states that only 7,500 fans will fall into the “thank you healthcare workers” category, leaving 17,5000 regular folks (some vaccinated, most not) to snap up tickets.

On top of this, how many unvaccinated workers will park cars, serve food, take tickets, clean bathrooms? Without these workers doing hard labor, the Super Bowl wouldn’t be so super. A regular NFL stadium game mid-season takes “at least 2,000 workers” to pull off, many of whom make minimum wage without healthcare benefits. This stat does not include the television workers of the press pool who will be operating cameras, sound and lighting equipment, prepping hair and makeup for reporter appearances, and so forth.

The most egregious line in the piece states, “Despite the pandemic, the NFL hasn't been forced to cancel a single game this season, which is a credit to the players and league for sticking to the protocols that helped allow games to be played safely.” Of course, the flip side of this is that many games were played despite active COVID cases among staff and fans.

Over and over again, over the last year, I have heard the argument. We need some sense of normalcy during these “difficult times,” so sports, show business, political fanfare-like inaugurations, and other smaller-bore entertainment is “essential.”

Frankly, I think this argument is bullshit. Would your year have been that different if you were stuck watching Seinfeld reruns instead of brand new episodes of Young Sheldon that “tackle the virus”? Would things have been that much worse if you had to play backgammon with your kids on Sundays instead of watching football? Would that have made a global pandemic that much more bearable? More importantly, was whatever comfort these entertainments provided worth more than the human lives lost in bringing them to you?

We average citizens didn’t have a choice in the matter. Entertainment companies realized that as long as Tom Brady, Tom Hanks, and Mike Pence don’t die, their corrupt bargains will remain mostly invisible. Millions of people -- myself included -- will tune into the Super Bowl because it’s not like turning off the TV would change anything, and I’ve already had my fair share of backgammon.

As we see the end of the COVID era on the horizon, we must remember how stupid this era was. When we watch the Weeknd take the stage in a bejeweled mask that he quickly rips off on Sunday right after Toyota Presents: The Salute to Frontline Healthcare Workers and Police Officers Fireworks Extravaganza, let’s remember that these corporations were not really on our team, and we were not all in this together. 

All of his is to say, fuck it, watch the Super Bowl. Even enjoy yourself. But let’s remember that all of this didn’t have to be so stupid. 

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