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NFL threatens teams with game forfeitures for COVID-19 violations

Jason Owens
·4-min read

The NFL is ramping up its rhetoric when it comes to COVID-19 protocols.

A week after the league threatened teams with the loss of draft picks for violating safety measures, the NFL announced that protocol breaks could cost teams wins.

NFL memo promises harsh penalties

A league memo sent on Monday reiterated that draft picks are at stake and that violations that require schedule adjustments could result in game forfeiture.

“Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustment to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline, including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game,” the memo reads.

“Simply put, compliance is mandatory. Now is the time to recommit ourselves to our protocols and best practices for the duration of the season.”

The memo also outlines new measures intended to mitigate exposure at team facilities, including limits on free-agent tryouts, bans on team gatherings away from club facilities and video surveillance of facilities and team travel to monitor that protocols like wearing masks are followed.

The memo arrives after a week marred by COVID-19 outbreaks and continued violations of COVID-19 protocols by players and coaches.

The entrance to the Tennessee Titans' practice facility is shown Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The Titans suspended in-person activities through Friday after the NFL said three Titans players and five personnel tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first COVID-19 outbreak of the NFL season in Week 4. The facility is now closed for four days to help limit the spread of the virus. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
A COVID-19 outbreak at Titans facilities has prompted strong disciplinary language from he NFL. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Titans’ outbreak results in new reality for NFL

A game between the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers scheduled for Sunday was moved to Week 7 after an outbreak of at least 20 COVID-19 cases among the Titans. The outbreak forced both teams to move their bye week to Week 4 and initiated a schedule reshuffling that also impacted the Baltimore Ravens.

The Titans are under investigation by the NFL. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the NFL and NFLPA believe the outbreak is a result of failure to adhere to protocols, while the Titans believe they followed all of the league’s safety guidelines.

The Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots were also forced to move their Sunday afternoon game to Monday after each team reported a single COVID-19 case. As of Monday afternoon, the cases on each team remained limited to a single player.

Raiders racking up COVID-19 fines

The NFL also reportedly handed out fines to Las Vegas Raiders players on Monday after they were seen last week at a crowded indoor fundraiser not wearing masks. Most of the attendees also failed to wear masks, per video footage and photos from the event at a Henderson country club outside Las Vegas.

Tight end Darren Waller, who hosted the event, was fined $30,000 and several of his teammates were fined $15,000, according to NFL Network. Quarterback Derek Carr was among the players seen at the event without a mask.

Jon Gruden wears his mask around his chin instead of around his nose and mouth.
Jon Gruden has repeatedly flouted NFL mask mandates. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Gruden still not wearing masks properly

Head coach Jon Gruden could also find himself in hot water after failing to wear a mask properly on the sideline Sunday for a third straight week. Gruden’s failure to wear his mask around his mouth and nose during Week 2 garnered a $100,000 fine for him and a $250,000 fine for the Raiders.

In total, the NFL handed out $1.75 million in Week 2 fines for coaches not properly wearing masks. The NFL has not yet publicly responded to Gruden’s latest violation.

The stakes are high for the NFL, and the league is responding accordingly with its punishments. The success of this NFL season is based on the league’s belief that it can operate safely amid an airborne pandemic outside the confines of a bubble like the NBA, WNBA and NHL conducted their seasons in.

Can NFL mitigate COVID-19 outside a bubble?

In the absence of a bubble, the league believes its protocols are an effective measure in combatting the coronavirus within league circles. Through training camp and three weeks of the regular season, that was largely true. But now the league is at an inflection point that’s threatening its season.

And it’s standing by the stance that adhering to protocols is key.

“The preseason and the first three weeks fo the regular season proved that the strict adherence to the mandatory protocols jointly developed with the NFLPA make it possible to play football in a safe and responsible environment,” the NFL memo reads ...

“The protocols do not implement themselves, however, and our progress thus far cannot lead us to complacency. … As we have said before: act as if every person you come in contact with has a COVID infection and take appropriate precautions.”

Whether the NFL can actually mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through its protocols is far from a certainty. But in the absence of a bubble, it’s the best tactic the league has at its disposal. And with public health and billions of dollars at stake, the NFL is taking a hard line.

And one thing is certain. If players and coaches are wantonly violating basic COVID-19 safety guidelines, this season doesn’t stand a chance against the coronavirus.

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