The NFL’s pandemic response was a striking success — and a genuine public service

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No joke. Roger Goodell has shown plenty of flawed judgment over his 15-odd years as NFL commissioner, but if ever a leader deserves credit for rising to a crisis and putting on this implausibly successful season, he does. Give the man and his staff a bonus, and don’t leave out his SWAT epidemiologist, Christina Mack, or NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills and NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer, either. Beginning with the makeshift virtual draft back in April — which could have been a snarl-up but instead turned into a bravura display of coordination, not to mention crackling good television — straight through the Super Bowl, the NFL was an example of logistical excellence under pressure. You can debate the wisdom or morals of playing on, but you can’t debate the execution.

“First of all, there was a command structure: It was very clear how to get things done, when to get things done and who was going to do them,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease expert and member of President Biden’s coronavirus advisory team who spoke at an NFL-organized pandemic roundtable during Super Bowl week. “It was always very organized. Oftentimes I see situations where there isn’t a command structure in place like that, and it takes days sometimes to come to a certain point that in this command structure sometimes took an hour to happen.”

The NFL is always campaigning to be more than just badly needed amusement, to crawl more deeply into American cultural importance, and it’s not always the healthiest enterprise. But in this instance, it may have performed a real public service. The massive test-and-trace data it forwarded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — more than 950,000 tests given to 7,500 players and staff, as well as readouts from proximity trackers — yielded critical enlightenment about coronavirus transmissibility in workplaces. One thing the data showed was that the league’s low positivity rate wasn’t just accomplished with deep pockets and clout, though it used both of those. Lots of people and organizations have thrown money at the pandemic problem without these kinds of results.

The really valuable finding by the CDC and NFL is that it was the less resource-intensive protocols such as mask-wearing and strict quarantining that were most effectual, and those can be applied to businesses, schools and places of worship without enormous cost. The NFL spent a fortune proving it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The Seattle Seahawks under Coach Pete Carroll went from August to February without a positive test, using a lot of plexiglass, fresh air and distancing. Goodell and Sills said at the outset that they hoped to use the season to “contribute knowledge and insights that will aid the country’s pandemic response.” And they did.

A joint paper produced by the CDC and the NFL is worthwhile reading for every office manager in America. What the league discovered through its exhaustive efforts — and various outbreaks and setbacks from Baltimore to Tennessee — is that in-person meetings of even less than 15 minutes indoors could sicken people, with poor ventilation and no masking. Ride-shares are a bad idea — NFL data showed that exposure can result from simply driving friends to work. Cafeteria lines are hotspots and break rooms, too. Air flow is critical. Outdoor events are largely safe. And nothing beats masking up. What led to an outbreak, every time, was masklessness. Hear that, Rand Paul?

“It was uniform mask-wearing. It was outdoor activity. It was avoiding in-person meetings. It was avoiding meals together. It was avoiding sharing rides,” Sills said during a panel discussion last week. “These are the lessons and these are strategies that can be applied by organizations no matter what their resources. … It’s not about how frequently you test. It’s not about the proximity tracking devices. It’s about those basics. And I’ve said many times that avoiding transmission is not complicated. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated. It’s just something that has to be done every single day by everyone in the organization and done uniformly. And if it happens, you can keep people safe.”

What’s most striking in the CDC paper is how the NFL coordinated so many different elements, departments, realms of expertise and disparate groups of people. Epidemiologists worked with football operations. Athletic trainers became contact tracers. Goodell and union head DeMaurice Smith partnered to revise protocols, proving that management and labor could “get something done,” Smith said.

Then there was the cooperation of players, who with an average age of about 26 were in the nation’s highest transmission group and yet kept their positivity rate so low, which they only could have done with supreme discipline not just in the facilities but at home. “Nobody wanted to be ‘that guy,’ the guy who brought it in,’” said Anthony Casolaro, head of the NFL Physicians Society. “You get some of the key athletes to just say, ‘This is what we do,’ and the younger guys all follow suit.”

The NFL had its share of problems, and it no doubt will again as it heads into another offseason of uncertainty, of variants and vaccines. “The whole concept wasn’t to avoid positives; we knew that was not possible,” Goodell said at his annual Super Bowl news conference. But the organization and rigor it brought to herculean logistical experiments are an example for the whole country. If you want a model for how to manage a large business amid the pandemic, how to make solid yet adaptable judgments in the face of tremendous uncertainty, well, there it is.

It’s important to recognize that none of the people on Goodell’s staff had any special experience or magical discernment. They all started at square one with the virus. “We had to adapt at every stage, just like everybody else,” Goodell said. What they did have was candid assessment; resilience in the face of failure; and a leader who showed his executive skill, the ability to form well-reasoned plans and reorganize quickly.

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