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Tina Casey headshot

Why the NFL’s Million-Dollar Clarity on Face Masks Matters

By Tina Casey
Face Masks

Earlier this week, the NFL levied a total of more than $1 million in fines against five coaches who refused to follow league guidelines on wearing face masks, as well as their teams. Though the news has been largely confined to the sports columns, the clampdown is a welcome move that could embolden other business leaders to assert a more aggressive stand on COVID-19 prevention.

NFL steps up its COVID-19 prevention game

The White House has yet to formulate a consistent, science-based policy on COVID-19 protection, leaving the job up to a patchwork of state and local policy makers. That complicates matters for large and small business alike that want to follow guidelines and protect their employees, customers, and associated vendors from contracting a lethal virus.

Regardless of whether or not a person shows symptoms of COVID-19, the scientific consensus is that everyone should wear face coverings in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

The NFL, for one, has acknowledged the need for consistent, aggressive rules on face masks, and its position has evolved in concert with the growing weight of scientific evidence.

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Last July, the league initially mandated that face masks would only be required for game officials, medical staff, and other field personnel with access to the bench area. At the time, the requirement did not apply to coaches and players.

However, in discussions with players and their representatives the league made it clear that Black males were especially susceptible to COVID-19, a disturbing trend that has been supported with additional data in the following months.

Players were also put on notice that rule breakers would be subject to fines.

NFL to the public: no fumbling the ball on face masks

During July several NFL teams began announcing that fans would be required to wear face masks when attending games. Rather than leaving the decision as a piecemeal one, on July 22 the NFL confirmed that any fans at games would be required to wear masks on a league-wide basis.

The league did not set rules for fan attendance, as those would be governed by state-based policies on the permitted size of public gatherings. However, as the summer progressed and no consistent federal policy on COVID-19 emerged, by the end of August most teams announced that no fans would be permitted to attend games, at least during the first weeks of the season.

Concurrently with those announcements, the NFL upgraded its rules for COVID-19 prevention.

On September 1, the league announced that all coaches and other staff members would be required to wear face masks during games.

The new protocols also included new rules for the size of a team’s traveling party, and new testing requirements for owner access to a team’s locker room, field, or travel charter.

As cited by USA Today, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell explained that the new rules were a collaborative effort by the league, the NFL Players Association and medical experts, to establish a comprehensive set of protocols that put us in the best possible position to complete the season, culminating with the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay.”

Why business leadership matters more now than ever

The new rules were partly in response to a series of positive test results among players and personnel during the summer training season, in addition to general concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.

The league’s concerns mirror a long-expressed consensus among public health officials, that an increase in social activity will coincide with the onset of cooler weather in the fall, leading to a “second wave” of COVID-19 cases.

Despite the informed opinion of health experts and the league’s renewed emphasis on COVID-19 prevention, during the second week of play three coaches — Vic Fangio of the Denver Broncos, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Hawks, and Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers — were seen on the sidelines without wearing face masks. Earlier this week, they were reportedly each fined $100,000 for violating the league’s mask policy. Their teams were also reportedly fined an additional $250,000.

Apparently, the message did not get through to New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who were observed without face masks during Monday night’s game. Both teams were also fined $250,000.

“This is clearly a rule that the league is going to enforce,” noted Sports Illustrated.

The NFL’s strong policy on face masks is in stark contrast to President Trump’s on-again, off-again — mostly off-again — policy. In fact, the president has actively encouraged his followers to violate both state rules on public gatherings and expert guidance on masks. He has insisted on staging in-person rallies at both outdoor and indoor locations, even in cities and states where such gatherings are not permitted under COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Most of the attendees do not wear masks.

This week has seen an especially egregious illustration of the President’s misdirection on COVID-19 prevention.

At a rally in Toledo, Ohio on Monday, the president insisted that COVID-19 “affects virtually nobody."

As cited by CBS News and other news organizations, the president went on to ignore the statistics regarding higher risks for Black males, stating that "it affects elderly people. Elderly people with heart problems and other problems. But they have other problems, that's what it really effects, that's it.”

The president also ignored the fact that people of any age risk serious illness and death from COVID-19.

In a tragic coincidence of timing, on Monday the death of a young doctor in Houston, Texas, also surfaced on the media radar, putting the lie to the president’s inference that only elderly people need to fear infection.

“A Houston doctor died early Saturday after fighting for her life in an intensive care unit since becoming infected with COVID-19 in July, according to a statement from her family,” reported the Houston Chronicle.

CNN followed up with additional details, noting that “Adeline Fagan, a second year OBGYN resident living in Houston, died early Saturday after a couple months-long battle with COVID-19, her family announced in a post on a GoFundMe page established on her behalf. Fagan had just started her second year of residency in Houston when she got sick, the GoFundMe page said.”

Though mostly working in the delivery ward, Fagan also worked in the ER with COVID-19 patients, where she may have been exposed to the virus.

In addition, this week the Centers for Disease Control guidance has swung from downplaying the risk of airborne transmission, to confirming the risk, and back to downplaying the risk all in the span of four days.

As this has occurred, reports have surfaced that Trump son-in-law and official advisor Jared Kushner deliberately steered federal policy out of the COVID-19 response field, laying the burden on states.

This tragic — and potentially criminal — mismanagement of a public health crisis has motivated the NFL and other business leaders to take action in the absence of strong federal guidelines and consistent information on COVID-19 prevention. If the events of this week are any indication, it looks like they will have much more work to do in the coming weeks and months.

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Image credit: Rwelborn/Pixabay

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey