The San Francisco 49ers suddenly found themselves without a home. The Denver Broncos played an entire game without a quarterback. And the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens didn't even take the field after their marquee matchup was postponed not once, not twice, but three times.
As the crude old joke goes, "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"
Week 12 in the NFL was one to remember — for all the wrong reasons. Rather than football, the F stood for farcical. And what did, and didn't, go down on the gridiron over the last few days should be sending shivers up the spines of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NBA head honcho Adam Silver as they work against logic and common sense to bring their leagues back to play new seasons while society is suffering through the worst of the pandemic.
Just how bad is it right now? As of Monday morning, the United States had recorded 4.2 million new COVID-19 cases and nearly 36,000 deaths in November. That's a mind-numbing jump from an already terrible 1.9 million new cases and 23,000 deaths in October. And remember when all of pro sports shut down in March? Our southern neighbours recorded 186,000 cases and just over 3,700 deaths that month, which can now safely be referred to as "the good old days."
Canada has had approximately 140,000 new cases and nearly 2,000 deaths over the past 30 days. That's a quantum leap from the 76,000 cases and 834 deaths in October. In March, there were just over 8,000 cases and 100 deaths.
I'll take you on another quick but relevant trip down memory lane. Remember when Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said the following in early June? "Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we're trying to just bring it back, even though we've taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say."
Yeah, about that. The NFL, and other pro sports leagues, are apparently trying to put the "fun" in dysfunctional these days. All in the name of the almighty buck. Profits over people, same as it ever was.
As I scanned various broadcasts on Sunday, the elephant in the room was rarely mentioned. For example, tuning in to watch the incredible Patrick Mahomes put on a quarterbacking clinic against the rapidly aging Tom Brady, you'd have thought the Kansas City—Tampa Bay game was the only thing in the world that mattered. Which, of course, was the goal of the NFL and its network partners, what with billions of dollars at stake.
Escapes from reality can be great, but not at the expense of public health. In that sense, the most powerful and successful pro sports league on Earth has become that popular meme you've likely all seen on social media, the one that shows a dog sitting at a kitchen table with a cup of coffee, surrounded by a fiery inferno. "This is fine," the cartoon canine says.
Of course, there was no escaping the five-alarm fire in Denver, where all four Broncos pivots were ruled out owing to COVID-19. One tested positive, while the other three were ineligible due to close contact. And so they turned to a wide receiver on their practice squad named Kendall Hinton, turning this into a Mile High mockery.
It went about as poorly as you'd expect — Hinton completed one pass to his own team (for a 13-yard gain) and two passes to the guys on the other team, New Orleans. The Saints marched their way to a 31-3 laugher, which amounts to the free space on the bingo card, and should have their divisional rivals crying foul over the uneven playing field.
In Pittsburgh, the third time wasn't the charm for the undefeated Steelers to take on the decimated Ravens in a game that was supposed to be played last Thursday, was bumped to Sunday, then moved to Tuesday and now shifted to Wednesday. Which means Week 12 will have literally lasted seven full days in this case, the first time that's ever happened. Provided, of course, the game doesn't get delayed again.
With COVID-19 taking a toll on both rosters, this high-stakes meeting between two bitter rivals will involve rosters resembling a typical August pre-season meeting. And to show how silly this all is, Heinz Field could have hosted fans at 25 per cent capacity if the game had been played as scheduled on U.S. Thanksgiving. But new sanctions in Pennsylvania, which came into effect on Friday to reflect surging infections in the community, means the stadium will be empty.
In the case of the 49ers, they're going to take their show on the road, forced to play December home games in Arizona after strict new county measures shuttered their stadium for the foreseeable future.
I wonder how close we are to other markets following suit?
I'm not sure how much football Bettman watched over the weekend, what with his league's ongoing labour issues occupying most of his to-do list. With time ticking away for a targeted Jan. 1 start to the new NHL season and owners and players at an impasse over money, this should serve as a startling reminder that the biggest obstacle remains COVID-19, and it is in complete control right now.
Unlike the NFL, where game are primarily played outdoors, we should expect things to be even worse in the NHL (and the NBA, for that matter, set to open training camps later this week and the new season Dec. 22), considering medical officials say indoor spread of the virus is much more prevalent.
Just look at Team Canada's world junior hockey championship team for an example, with the entire training camp squad about to enter a second week of quarantine in Red Deer, Alta., after two players and one staff member tested positive despite being inside a bubble. Alberta's infection rates are now 10 times worse than when the NHL pulled off its successful Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton over the summer, so this shouldn't be a surprise. And yet plans apparently continue for a 10-country tournament to start on Christmas Day in Alberta's capital city.
At that point, the NFL is scheduled to be gearing up for playoffs, the NBA expects to have its shortened season underway and the NHL hopes to be in the midst of training camps. All this despite the fact we may not have experienced the worst of COVID-19 yet, with vaccines in the earliest stages of being rolled out.
Unlike that meme, everything is not fine. Pro sports right now is like the band trying to play on, even as the Titanic is sinking around them. Stop the music. Stop the insanity. Stop the games.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.