Why it would be hypocritical for the NFL to hammer the Titans over COVID protocol violations

As the Titans COVID outbreak continues to unravel — now up to 24 confirmed cases combined, 14 players and 10 staff personnel — calls for the NFL to hammer Tennessee with punishment have grown louder.

Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk mentioned “buzz of historic punishment” on Wednesday.

Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports passed along quotes from league sources that it’s “not a matter of if, but when and how severe” when it comes to the Titans getting smacked by the league.

Others have called for forfeits, draft picks being taken away, and even kicking the Titans out of the 2020 season altogether online. Every day that more positive tests are revealed, the anger towards the team becomes more intense (despite the fact that the continued positive tests are more than likely a result of the virus’s prolonged incubation period, not a continued violation of rules by the team).

So what, exactly, have the Titans done to deserve punishment? Well, the investigation is still ongoing so we don’t know a ton with great certainty, but this is what we do know.

The league is looking into several aspects of the team’s behavior in the week leading up to and following the Vikings game. Included in that investigation are photos that the league used as an example in a call with the rest of the league’s general managers earlier this week.

That would seem to make it clear that the Titans have — at least — broken some rules in their implementation of the NFL’s COVID protocols.

Also included in the league’s investigation are the reports that the Titans held an unauthorized players-only workout at Montgomery Bell Academy on September 30th, one day after the league shut down their facilities, and according to league sources, told the team not to gather on their own as well.

The timeline of the workouts in question is interesting:

  • September 29th: Titans outbreak begins, team sends players home. According to multiple reports, league sources say that both the Titans and Vikings were told not to meet outside the facility.
  • September 30th: A group of about 15 Titans offensive skill players, led by Ryan Tannehill, meet at Montgomery Bell Academy to work out together. Titans defensive backs also meet at Belmont for their own small group workout.
  • October 1st: NFL releases a league-wide memo explicitly banning off-site workouts. Mike Vrabel tells media that he has told team not to gather until further notice.

Let’s state the obvious first… this was a bad idea by the players, even if you could understand how they arrived at making the decision (the Steelers were practicing, they’d all just tested negative, and they were gathering outdoors in small groups). The optics stink, even if you buy into the theory that the league didn’t do an adequate job of making it clear that player-only workouts were banned on the 29th.

However, is it wrong for me to like to hear from someone besides a league source that the team was told not to gather away from the facility on the 29th? After all, the NFL has a vested interest in making the Titans into the bad guy here and avoiding public scrutiny of their protocols and decision making (more on that momentarily).

Besides the workout and the mask protocol violations, the league is also reportedly looking into whether or not Shane Bowen broke protocols by not reporting a close contact with an individual who had been exposed to the virus.

We know that the Titans broke protocol to at least some degree based on the reports of them being used as an example — alongside the Raiders — in the league’s lecture to teams about the importance of following the rules. Tennessee almost certainly is not the only team to have mask violations in the facility, but they’re the ones with the very ugly outbreak.

For that reason, I think the team will — and should — receive some strong fines. The Raiders, who have also had multiple infractions — Jon Gruden not wearing a mask properly during games and multiple players attending an indoor charity event without masks together — and a positive COVID test in recent days, have been fined a total of $565,000 for those violations.

With that in mind… fines for players who were confirmed to be at unauthorized workouts and/or seen on video breaking mask protocols should be expected. The organization and coaches who violated rules should also be hit in the pocketbook.

However, taking away multiple first round picks? Forcing them to cancel the rest of their season? Give me a break…

It’s not that this isn’t a serious issue — it absolutely is — but if the league’s protocols were so bulletproof that this outbreak was 100% a case of a rogue organization, then why did the NFL release revised, strengthened protocols after beginning their review of the Titans outbreak?

Further, doesn’t the league have some responsibility for the extent of the Titans outbreak? After all, they were aware of Shane Bowen’s positive test on Saturday, as well as the number of close contacts that he had with other staff members and players in the days leading up to that positive test, and they signed off on all of those close contacts piling in a plane together with the rest of the Titans travel group, heading to Minnesota, and playing in a game on Sunday.

What’s more likely to have spread the virus based on what we know about it? Fifteen players having an outdoor throwing session or 90-plus people piling into a confined metal tube with recirculated air for two hours?

And it’s not just the Titans either…

Cam Newton tested positive on Saturday, October 3rd, and reportedly had several close contacts within the Patriots organization, and the NFL still okay’d New England packing up and heading to Kansas City two days later to play the Chiefs despite knowing that the incubation period of COVID-19 is frequently up to 7 days and sometimes all the way up to 14.

Since that decision two more Patriots have tested positive: defensive lineman Bill Murray and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. The NFL is currently investigating the Patriots and despite negative tests from the past two days, they aren’t quite out of the woods yet with regards to the incubation period.

Through four weeks, there had been three cases of players or coaches testing positive late in the week just days before a game: Bowen/Titans, Newton/Patriots, and Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell, who tested positive on Saturday, September 26th — the day before the Falcons hosted the Bears.

Two of those cases have experienced outbreaks to some degree (obviously, the Titans has been much worse than the Patriots to this point). The Falcons avoided any spread beyond Terrell.

What do those two outbreaks have in common? The NFL putting them on a plane to go play a football game within two days of a reported positive test that included close contacts. The Falcons played at home in the days following Terrell’s positive test.

For all we know, those decisions had as much — or more — to do with the outbreaks than the lax use of masks within the building or the players gathering to throw. Again, that’s not an excuse for a bad decision by Titans players, but anything above and beyond fines feels like the league scapegoating and taking the opportunity to put all the blame and scrutiny on a small market team with one of the league’s smallest fan bases.

Some reports suggest that the NFL wants to “send a message to the rest of the league” by burying the Titans, but I have to ask whether 24 cases of a dangerous virus isn’t messaging enough on its own? Every coach in the NFL is pointing to the Titans being down 14 players right now and not being able to practice as an example of why their players need to be following protocols, not to mention the health risks to individuals and their families.

The league and it’s players association also took some calculated risks when they decided to proceed with a full regular season without a bubble in the midst of a global pandemic. While I certainly hope that this is the only extensive breakout that we see within a team this year, I’d be shocked if that turns out to be the case.

So fine the Titans into oblivion and make them play without practicing. That’s fair, they broke the rules. However, spare me the scorched earth punishments and “it’s all your fault” posturing from the league that sent a COVID plane to Kansas City four days ago.

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