An NFL lesson: Masks were not seen as sign of weakness but as sign of responsibility

Players wanted the season to go on. They didn’t want to be the one who exposed their teammates. They enlisted their families to follow strict rules voluntarily. There was no talk about tyranny.

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Commissioner Roger Goodell adjusts his mask before the NFL Super Bowl 55 football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneer on Sunday.

David J. Phillip/AP

Last night, millions of people across the world watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win the Super Bowl over the Kansas City Chiefs. They saw great athletes performing at the top of their profession. They saw a game marked by hard tackling and blocking, fierce runs and complex plays. It was a big night with a big audience. The obvious question is how was the National Football League able to pull off playing the season with 32 teams and then the playoffs and the big game in the midst of a pandemic?

To even have a season and a Super Bowl, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL leadership must be applauded for their acts of bold and clear direction. The League elaborated clear rules, and then tightened them in response to what they learned.

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They required daily testing of the players and staff, conducting more than 1 million tests for COVID-19. That allowed discovery of any infections early and imposition of isolation before the virus spread to others.

Every player wore proximity sensors that would record who they came in contact with and for how long. That data allowed league officials to track the footsteps of the infected and identify who else might have been infected. Surprisingly they found no cases of transmission on the field during games, even though players didn’t wear masks. Presumably their rapid movement and the ventilation of open-air stadiums provided additional protection.

They issued strict protocols on mask wearing, which the league found was most effective. Players wore masks in the locker room, in the weight room, off the field, when shaking hands after the game.

They drastically limited exposure. All meetings were virtual, not in person. Meals were eaten alone, not in groups. Carpooling was prohibited. Players were separated in buses.

Most of all, they enforced the rules. Violators faced fines and other penalties. But the biggest enforcement was self-discipline. Players wanted the season to go on. They didn’t want to be the one who exposed their teammates. They enlisted their families to follow strict rules voluntarily. There was no talk about tyranny. Masks were not seen as a sign of weakness but as a sign of responsibility. And, remarkably, it worked.

When the game was played, two teams faced off. Each team had players and coaches and staff of many colors, many races and different religions. They learned to respect one another and rely on one another and to play as a team. They would not have gotten to the Super Bowl without that. Fans cheered for players based on the color of their jersey, not the color of their skin. The playing field was level for all; the rules were the same for all.

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The game was fiercely contested. Some big-time hits were made. Tempers ran ragged. As Tampa Bay enjoyed the joys of victory, Kansas City dealt with the disappointment of defeat. After the game, the players shared handshakes and good wishes. The winners did little gloating; the losers acknowledged their loss and complimented the victors.

Americans can take pride in the Super Bowl, a global event. We can also learn from how the NFL and the players came together responsibly to allow the game to be played in the midst of the pandemic. And how the teams vied fiercely on the field, with clear rules fairly enforced, and accepted the result. We can learn that if we all come together, wear masks, limit exposure, get tested, get vaccinated, we can beat the pandemic. And if we make the rules clear, and the field of play level, we can accept the result.

Last night the NFL put on a big show. It also provided a big model and lesson for all of us to learn that if the rules are public, the goals are clear, the referees are fair, the score is transparent and the playing field is even we can all compete and succeed or fail on the basis of our talent and skill and not anything else.

Follow Rev. Jesse Jackson on Twitter @RevJJackson

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