When New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month, it was alarming. When two more players tested positive just a week later, that alarm grew even louder.
But when the news of another Patriots positive test dropped on Sunday — leading the team to close their Foxborough facility and the NFL to delay their game against the Denver Broncos by a week — it became impossible to ignore the blare of the alarm.
Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty asserted in a call with reporters on Saturday that the NFL and player’s union aren't prioritizing player safety.
"For them, it’s not about what’s in our best interests, or our health and safety. It’s about, ‘What can we make, protocol-wise, that sounds good, looks good? And how can we go out there and play games?'" McCourty said.
McCourty said the mentality of the team is that everyone in the building has to take care of each other, physically and mentally. But he claimed that those who don't have to walk onto the field every day, or aren't Patriots staffers or administration members, simply "don't care" — that they're only trying to get games played and the season going.
In their announcement of the postponement of the Patriots-Broncos game, the NFL said the "decision was made to ensure the health and safety of players, coaches and game day personnel and in consultation with medical experts."
The NFL knew it was taking a gamble when the season kicked off during a pandemic. But with dozens of players and staff members testing positive since the season's start — and the Patriots and other teams struggling to stay on schedule — is the gamble paying off?
Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, points out the League is still doing a lot of testing.
“Probably, they will do an OK job at preventing widescale spread. But, you never know," Mina said. "It just takes one person, like we saw recently in the [White House] Rose Garden. It takes one person to just have an unlucky situation where they’re a super spreader, and they walk into practice, into the locker room, or whatever, and infect a whole lot of other people, especially if they don’t have their masks on.”
It's important to point out that the NFL says they are strictly enforcing mask wearing, especially during games.
But has that been enough? Players can still go home and be among the outside world once they get out of the confines of their training facilities. Because the NFL didn’t go into a bubble like the NBA, WNBA and NHL, the country’s biggest contact sport has opened itself to an imperfect protection plan.
Mina said it will be hit or miss.
“I think in general, the type of testing they’re doing, and as long as they’re also wearing masks, it will probably do a pretty good job," he said. "We might see a slow trickle of people getting infected and then recovering, but ideally without massive outbreaks throughout the League.”
Right now, it looks like that trickle is speeding up. The Tennessee Titans had another positive case this weekend, leading to a total of 24 coronavirus cases among players and staff.
It remains, at least, theoretically possible that football teams can prevent the spread of COVID-19 among their ranks. We don't have to look far for proof.
The Boston College Eagles have had only one positive test out of the over 4,500 they've taken since the beginning of June. But, those are college students who can be kept on a campus and whose movements can be restricted much more easily.
NFL players are being asked to play a season despite a virus with still unknown long-term effects. Eight Patriots opted out of playing before the season started because of COVID-19. Out of the players who are still active on this year's roster and practice squad, four have tested positive.
And McCourty, who is openly questioning the League's priorities, said he has been staying at a hotel to keep his family safe. So while the League is making a gamble, those on the ground appear to be the ones who have had to pay the price so far.