One of the cruelest aspects of Covid-19 is the danger it poses for joyous group gatherings that bring together people of all ages and backgrounds. The Thanksgiving and December holidays, for example, contributed to a surge in transmission that led to an all-time high in case counts in the U.S. The Super Bowl could do the same.
While case counts have been falling recently, this weekend brings the risk of a backslide as the NFL hosts Super Bowl LV, another beloved American tradition that usually involves indoor gatherings across the United States and around the world. In a recent Seton Hall Sports Poll, 1 in 4 people said they would be gathering with other people who live outside their homes to watch the game. That translates to millions of Americans who might be sharing not only chips and dips this year, but also a potentially deadly virus.
The NFL has made a lot of money this year because American officials and the public have allowed it to proceed, presumably judging the benefits of playing professional football during the time of coronavirus greater than the risks. During the season the NFL has done a tremendous job of creating a safe environment for its assets: In one typical week late in the season, 0.65% of NFL players and staff tested positive, compared with an estimated 1.3% of the U.S. general population.
The league has not shown as much urgency about its role in protecting the public, however. It allowed the Dallas Cowboys and their partially indoor stadium to lead the way in fan attendance, rather than host on a safer outdoor field. And the conversation on playing at all this year was more frequently focused around keeping NFL personnel safe rather than not contributing to the community spread of Covid-19.
That could change. Though the NFL has been silent about indoor Super Bowl parties, with only a few days left there’s still time for the league to show concern before Sunday for its fans’ health and tackle the potential for superspreading by asking people to avoid sports bars and multihousehold indoor watch parties. The league could use its media properties, such as NFL Network, and urge CBS and other broadcast partners to amplify public health campaigns, including messages from the CDC to watch the Super Bowl virtually, or with only people you live with.
The NFL could also draw on its “Stay Home Stay Strong” public service announcement from the spring of 2020 in which players urged people to stay home, update it by incorporating Super Bowl-specific messages, and run a public relations blitz on all the league’s social media platforms to spread the word.
Community transmission is high, the overwhelming majority of Americans have not yet been vaccinated, and more transmissible variants of the virus are beginning to spread throughout the U.S. In these dangerous conditions, there’s a moral imperative for the host of a major sports event to include proactive efforts to protect the community — not just its athletes and staff.
We applaud the NFL for limiting official events connected with the Super Bowl to outdoor activities. But the league needs to go much further to address the larger risk of viral spread from informal gatherings associated with the game.
The league has the platform and the resources at its disposal to reach the majority of Americans in ways that public health departments cannot. The NFL should amplify powerful, compelling public health messages on how to play it safe and avoid indoor gatherings. Big-time college coaches including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Louisiana State University’s Ed Orgeron cut PSAs encouraging masking. The NFL should follow their lead for Super Bowl gatherings.
The NFL could also support and promote lower-risk alternatives, like virtual watch parties. The Danish professional soccer team AGF provided a great example of how to bring thousands of fans together online. The league even projected groups of fans onto giant video screens that had been set up in the stadium.
For the Super Bowl, the NFL could help promote Covid-friendly ideas like face painting contests, trivia, and commercial rating games. Just as Americans learned how to deliver Halloween candy through makeshift chutes and to host virtual holiday cookie swaps, we can invent new traditions to celebrate the Super Bowl during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The NFL should not be on the sidelines of this effort.
The league claims in its mission statement that it understands it has a leadership role in society: “everything we do has a consequence for someone else.” But so far during the greatest public health crisis of our time it has abdicated responsibility for its communities of fans while acting successfully to protect its investments.
As thousands of Americans die every day from Covid-19, it’s time for the NFL to step up its game. The country’s top national priority should be to drive Covid-19 transmission down as low as possible to buy time until vaccines can be made widely available.
Even with only a few days before the big game, the league needs to be an active participant in discouraging these gatherings. The NFL has the resources, creativity, and innovation to contribute to this effort by asking people to stay home for the big game. It should do that.
Zach Binney is a sports epidemiologist and assistant professor at Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta. Kathleen Bachynski is an assistant professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and the author of “No Game for Boys to Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis” (University of North Carolina Press, November 2019).