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The NFL can guard against COVID-19 all it wants, but players still have to tackle each other

What’s tackling but a renunciation of everything we’ve learned about keeping the coronavirus at bay?

Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks is concerned about player safety because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks is concerned about player safety because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The NFL really has this pandemic thing figured out, doesn’t it?

The latest science-driven protocols will be in place when players return to team facilities in the coming weeks. Testing for COVID-19 will be a regular occurrence. Proper social-distancing will be observed. Masks will be mandatory at team meetings. Locker rooms will be cleansed and disinfected so often, you might mistake them for operating rooms.

We expect that from a league that prides itself on militarylike precision.

But there’s one little thing that keeps tugging at the sleeve: Eventually, the players are going to have to touch each other. Touching is sort of a necessity when it comes to huddling and blocking and — this is a biggie — hitting, which is the whole point of football.

Touching goes against the concept of keeping six feet away from the person closest to you. Tackling sneers at social-distancing and, further, would blow it up like a defenseless receiver if it could. And what’s gang-tackling but a renunciation of everything we’ve learned about keeping the coronavirus at bay?

A football game is a buffet table of germs. This virus will be on the menu. There are too many people involved in the NFL for it not to be.

At least a few Bears are concerned about their safety, which, in itself, is interesting. They don’t worry about paralysis or brain trauma, or if they do, they’ve learned to stuff it away in a corner. They know those dangers are a possible price of doing business. But now they’re worried about a virus they can’t see, one that infectious-disease experts have very little knowledge of and one that doesn’t yet have a vaccine.

Hard to blame them.

If the NFL allows fans in the stands this season, they will be required to socially distance from one another. It’s the responsible thing to do. Meanwhile, the people entertaining them will be looking like a glob of humanity on every play. You can understand why some players feel like a piece of meat. Or a specimen on a microscope slide.

“I’ll say this, it is scary,” Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said recently. “It’s scary to think that most of my job is physical contact with other players. And so, boy, I don’t know. I don’t know. I want to be safe, and I’m sure they’re going to do their best to make sure we’re in the best possible situation in order to be able to play this game and do it, right? But it’s scary.”

The truth is that, for all the best practices the NFL intends to put in place, it doesn’t know what’s going to happen when the players return to work. Experts expect a spike in COVID-19 cases from the recent protests over George Floyd’s death. Those nationwide protests involved hundreds of thousands of masked people walking shoulder to shoulder.

Would it be logical to think that sweating and grunting linemen who are holding on to each other every play are at a higher risk of contracting the virus than, say, people at a protest? Or at the grocery store? Did I mention that, as of right now, the only mask the players would be wearing during games is a metal one attached to their helmets? The league reportedly is looking into modified masks that might contain surgical material.

So this is going to be very, very interesting. If more than a few players on a team test positive for the virus, the league will have a decision to make on how to proceed. It will be a decision with tons of money at stake. If Hicks and others are concerned now about COVID-19, how will they react if a teammate needs to be hospitalized because of the virus? Suddenly, it’s not a hypothetical. It’s a reality, one the players have to bring home to families. To their children.

As much as many of us want sports to return, there is nothing easy about this. You can say that the coronavirus usually affects older people with underlying health issues, but try telling that to someone who is being asked to leave his fears at the stadium tunnel and go hit the quarterback.

It’s not as easy as saying, “Just play.’’ Well, it is if you’re not the one doing the blocking and the tackling. But if you’re a cornerback being asked to attach yourself to a receiver on every play, you might not be so cavalier about it.

Let’s also keep in mind that some of these guys aren’t the nicest people in the world on game day. Or any other day. What’s the over/under on the number of games into the season before a player accuses an opponent of spitting in his face?

I’ll go with two.

What’s the protocol for that?