In a year when we are searching for any sense of normalcy, the NFL’s return feels far from normal. But believe it or not, football — or at least a version of it — is back.
Every September, the start of the NFL regular season feels like Christmas morning for sports fans. It marks the return of unproductive Sundays filled with switching between fantasy football apps, staring intensely at NFL RedZone for eight consecutive hours and overreacting at your favorite team’s highest of highs and lowest of lows. It means going to an NFL stadium and losing your voice while creating great memories with friends and family.
But this September won’t be like every September. And this NFL season won’t be like any that has come before it.
The problem is, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. There were supposed to be cheering fans lining the rows of stadiums across the country, jersey swaps after games and parking lots full of tailgaters and merriment. Instead, we are left not with a feeling of promise but with the feeling that it all might not matter.
While the NBA, MLS and NHL took steps to create bubbles to ensure player safety, the NFL waited, seemingly praying that the coronavirus would disappear by the fall. The NFL had the advantage of time on its side, a luxury that other leagues did not possess. And yet it waited.
Granted, the MLB did not create a bubble and, after initial hiccups, has seemed to steady the course, but it hasn’t been normal. For one, the season is 60 games long, and people are still debating new extra-innings rules. In short, it’s baseball but not as we have always known it.
Similarly, the NFL is back, but it definitely won’t be normal. Heck, even the preseason was canceled this year. With larger staffs and rosters, NFL teams traveling across the country seems like a disaster waiting to happen. A blind faith appears to exist that players and staff will all follow the rules when they’re away from team facilities, but what would happen if a marquee player such as Tom Brady contracted COVID-19? Would the Buccaneers have to turn to Blaine Gabbert for two weeks?
There is simply too much uncertainty surrounding the season. Don’t get me wrong — I’m as excited to watch football as anyone, but the lack of a concrete plan of action seems irresponsible. It just feels as if the season could get canned or postponed at any moment between September and February — I’m used to my team’s season ending in early January.
Beyond the logistics standpoint, the NFL’s return just doesn’t feel right. Fans booing during the moment of solidarity between the Chiefs and Texans in Thursday’s season opener showed that our nation has much larger issues that need to be resolved, and it’s still unclear how much NFL players, and the league, will continue to use their platforms to address racial inequality.
Sports hold the ability to bring people together across so many barriers, yet there still exists a disconnect. Some argue that the only thing that matters is the game being played between the lines, while others posit that a movement cannot remain on the sidelines any longer. The NFL will have to decide which side it stands up for this season.
These are discussions that need to be had and that should have already been had. It is long overdue, but the pandemic and the last few months’ events have forced everyone to do some introspection. The NFL must do the same.
I’ll be the first one to turn on football this Sunday and watch with anticipation after what has felt like a lifetime of waiting. But I’ll do so with readjusted expectations, mindful that it might not be what I’ve become accustomed to seeing on Sundays.
Kabir Rao covers men’s basketball and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].