Toxic pride is the NFL’s biggest obstacle to a much-needed playoff bubble

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The league doesn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of admitting its original plans have failed.

The league doesn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of admitting its original plans have failed.
Illustration: Eric Barrow

One of the biggest topics among some coaches, players and others throughout the NFL is a simple question: Will there be a bubble for the playoffs?

The answer is complicated and what the league wants to do isn’t set. The NFL is waiting to see what happens in the coming weeks during the pandemic before making any type of decision.

Yet an interesting set of opposing views are beginning to take hold on the possibility of a playoff bubble, and in many ways, who wants what, and why, mirrors the larger debate that’s happening in America.

When I asked one head coach if he believed a playoff bubble was imminent, his answer was fascinating.

“In the end, I think teams will create their own,” said the coach. “No way (the) league wants to. They wanna say, ‘Told you we could do it.’”

The coach isn’t being hyperbolic. He’s correct. If you don’t think he’s right, you don’t know this league.

The NFL’s attitude is: We don’t need no fucking playoff bubble, we are the N…F…Fucking L. Bubbles are for socialist basketball players.

What I’m hearing is that many coaches and teams like the idea of a playoff bubble. No team wants to do it but they think it’s a necessity. This makes sense because each team is a pandemic ground zero. Players and coaches are in locker rooms and meeting rooms, swapping stories and droplets, and the impact of COVID-19 is right in their faces.

The virus isn’t theoretical to them. Since they work in large groups and are in constant close contact during practices and games, players face as much danger as almost anyone. The same goes for coaches.

The league, I’m told, resists a playoff bubble because of the expense, but also because of dogma. A bubble is essentially a condom. The league’s strategy is, instead, basically mitigation. It focuses more on post-outbreak than taking the massive step of the ultimate preventative tool that is a bubble. The league is fully invested in its current strategy and when the league digs in, it takes something monumental to move it.

This isn’t to say the league hasn’t planned for the worse, and the worse might force the NFL to bubble that shit up if in next month the country is still drowning in virus.

The NFL is doing exactly as the country has done. The federal government under Donald Trump has left it up to the states to fend for themselves. The NFL has more of a centralized policy but the league decided it wants no part of keeping players in a centralized location.

Instead, like individual states, teams are making bubble plans of their own. These ideas mostly involve sequestering teams in a local hotel with no — or minimal — contact with the outside world until the playoffs are concluded.

“Just local hotel,” said the coach. “Less at-home exposure. Not 100 percent perfect but overall less at-home exposure.”

This remains the huge problem with a bubble-less frontier. If the communities where players live are shedding megatons of virus, it’s inevitable that virus will creep into the locker room and franchises.

The NBA understood this, which is why what it did was so smart. Basketball owners and the league office didn’t just want to protect profits, though that was obviously part of it. The sport also wanted to protect its players, even if some players didn’t want to do it.

“I don’t think there’s a brand in America that is more consistent than the NBA,” said David Carter to Forbes. Carter is a sports business professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, a strategic marketing consultant, and a longtime observer of the league. “To me, a brand is a promise, and you know what you’re going to get out of the NBA, just as you know what you’re going to get out of Tiffany and Harley-Davidson.”

Carter added the NBA “seemed to be more uniform, more in lockstep for how they handled major issues, whether it’s COVID, or social justice, or putting together a bubble that works.”

This type of togetherness is something the NFL rarely pulls off, because owners believe in imposing their will rather than partnering with players.

Former Raiders team executive Amy Trask, now an NFL analyst for CBS, has workshopped what a playoff bubble would look like. She picks the city of Los Angeles as the place to do it.

“There are, in and around the Los Angeles area, a minimum of four and perhaps five venues that can be used for NFL playoff games,” she writes for The Athletic. “The availability of so many facilities means that field conditions will not be adversely impacted by multiple games being played on the same field on the same day or even on the same weekend. Three of those facilities (SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park) are in relatively close proximity to one another, and that would facilitate the movement of league equipment, broadcast equipment and other materials and personnel for each game.”

Again, the league might eventually want to utilize a playoff bubble, but only if they’re forced by the virus to do it. They won’t do it prophylactically the way basketball did.

So once the playoffs start, players, and their teams, will probably be on their own.

Good luck.

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