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Can the NFL avoid a COVID-19 ‘forest fire’? What we learned from the Titans’ outbreak



As the NFL approached training camp this summer, its chief medical officer offered a lofty goal for the plan to play amid a pandemic. The league wasn’t going to retreat to a bubble, Dr. Allen Sills said in July at a virtual meeting of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Instead, it had established a set of protocols it hoped would serve as a national model for coexisting with COVID-19.

“I think we have a unique opportunity,” Sills said, “but also a responsibility to use the platform and resources of the NFL to really study and learn and to take that knowledge and apply it for the benefit of the other segments of the society. That is what we plan to do.”

In reality, as it plans to fine the Tennessee Titans for protocol violations during their recent outbreak, the NFL has found that its successes and failures amid the pandemic have mirrored those of the society it was hoping to uplift. On the one hand, the NFL has outperformed the national infection rate by implementing daily testing and mask-wearing in many settings while deploying electronic devices to assist in physical separation and contact tracing. On the other hand, the NFL has been upended by lapses as simple as inconsistent mask usage and the urge to gather in relatively close quarters, demonstrating how thin its margin of error and how difficult its remaining task really are.

The Titans’ 24-person outbreak was the largest consequence to date, and it prompted the league and the NFL Players Association to plead for renewed vigilance with 65% of regular-season games remaining. That’s a big ask. Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, a nationally recognized infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, is predicting “the darkest days of the pandemic” in the months ahead, raising the likelihood that players and coaches could encounter the virus in their communities. Meanwhile, a high number of uncompetitive teams might lessen the incentive for strict protocol compliance.

“We have said all along that we have cases that occur,” Sills said last week, “and in fact, it’s getting more challenging over these next few weeks because the disease is spiking across the country. … So what that means is our players, coaches and staff are going to be more exposed when they leave the facility, when they go home, particularly if they have household members or children who might be going to school. So that’s why we have to double down our efforts in every club, and no one can ever relax and think we have this conquered.”

Indeed, the NFL recorded 60 positive cases among players and staff in the three weeks between Sept. 27 and Oct. 17, compared to 42 cases in the six-and-a-half weeks between Aug. 12 and Sept. 26.

A closer look at the Titans’ outbreak demonstrates the tightrope the league is walking. Speaking generally about the situation, Sills said the NFL/NFLPA investigation proved the importance of mask-wearing and the risk of in-person meetings. Players participated in group workouts after the team facility was closed, but according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the league found that communication from the team on what the protocol allowed was inconsistently communicated.

That’s hardly evidence of the sheer defiance many people around the league thought the investigation would turn up. It is in no way shocking, based on the country at large and even coaches on the sideline, that some members of the organization failed to wear masks inside the team facility. Nor is it surprising that there would be confusion about an entirely new set of rules that has evolved on an almost weekly basis amid the league’s first instance of a team outbreak.

Some of the protocol changes in recent weeks provide other clues as to what might have happened in Tennessee:

  • The first confirmed positive test on Sept. 24 was attributed to practice squad defensive back Greg Mabin, who was signed earlier in the week. The league now has a longer intake process for new players and limitations on tryouts.

  • The NFL and NFLPA agreed to start testing players and coaches on game day, a hole in the original protocol that might have led to some spread among Titans players and coaches between Sept. 27 and 29. And now teams will be required to isolate players and coaches who are judged “high-risk” close contacts for five days after their exposure to an infected individual. That approach has notably been implemented in Las Vegas, where the Raiders’ entire starting offensive line was placed on the COVID-19 list this week after four of them were exposed to infected tackle Trent Brown.

The league’s relatively light discipline elevated two conclusions. First, the outbreak was caused by a cascade of relatively mild negligence, as opposed to blatant disregard for health and safety. Second, the NFL doesn’t yet see the value in slamming major penalties on individuals as a way to coerce compliance. The protocols are new and, admittedly, not easy to follow.

It is true that the NFL fined five coaches $100,000 apiece, and their teams another $250,000, for inconsistent mask-wearing during games earlier this season. No one likes to lose money, let alone six figures’ worth. But around the league, financial penalties are absorbed more as a public relations message than as an effective means of curbing behavior. In-game penalties, suspensions, forfeiture of draft picks and other stabs at team competitiveness usually signify when the NFL means business.

For the next 11 weeks, the NFL will ask the nearly 8,000 employees it is monitoring weekly to help thread the needle through a pandemic that is getting worse. Osterholm told the Star Tribune that the country is “at a crossroads of pandemic fatigue and pandemic anger,” noting that mitigation efforts are increasingly falling on deaf ears. It isn’t outrageous to think that a similar sentiment could descend among some people associated with NFL teams during the final weeks or months of a lost season. Even after the NFL’s postseason expansion from 12 to 14 teams, an unusual number of clubs already face a steep climb into contention. Ten teams have one or fewer wins, the highest total through Week 6 in league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

I spoke recently with a retired player who expressed grave doubts that all of those teams will be able to maintain strict compliance with protocols, which include limitations on social gatherings and a general requirement to avoid behavior that unnecessarily risks infection.

Maintaining discipline down the stretch isn’t impossible, the retired player said, but it would require a rewiring of the culture around NFL teams that are out of contention. Despite best intentions in those situations, some details will slide. Even a minor lapse — a late night, a group outing, a lost contact tracing device — could topple a team and disrupt the NFL’s late-season schedule.

Sills said last week that the NFL has a “really good game plan,” but like any game plan, it is “only as good as the execution.” Executing at a “very high level,” he said, will maintain a “campfire and prevent it from turning into a forest fire.” When a nearly perfect performance is necessary to prevent a forest fire, it gives you a sense of how hard this is going to be — in some ways that can be identified and in others that no one can yet conceive of.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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