The NFL’s new COVID mask rules appeared to fail spectacularly on Sunday

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·5 min read

Just three days after the Las Vegas Raiders and head coach Jon Gruden were hit with a massive fine and stripped of a draft pick for repeated COVID-related violations, a wide swath of teams appeared to break key portions of new protocols the NFL set forth last week.

Once again, the league’s issue is orbiting how teams wear — or don’t wear — protective masks on gameday.

Sunday became the first full run of COVID-19 protocol changes that the NFL rolled out Tuesday, via a sternly worded memo circulated to every team. It warned franchises that it would now be mandatory for players and personnel to wear masks during pregame and postgame social interactions on the field.

On Sunday, a multitude of teams appeared to fail that new standard during postgame interactions that the league deemed to be “additional unnecessary risk.” That brings into question how the NFL will back up a portion of Tuesday’s memo, which warned that teams will be “subject to accountability measures” for violating the new social interaction protocols.

Adrian Peterson and Anthony Harris talk without face masks on.
Detroit Lions running back Adrian Peterson talks with Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris after their game on Sunday. The NFL mandated that players wear masks during postgame interactions. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

A key portion of the memo, which was sent to teams by the league office and later provided to Yahoo Sports by a team source:

“[P]re-game and post-game social interactions between clubs present additional unnecessary risk of transmission. These contacts, which typically involve individuals facing each other in close proximity while having conversations, present a greater risk of viral transmission than do most plays on the field. As a result, and as set forth in the Game Day Protocol, we strongly recommend that clubs avoid these interactions altogether. However, if clubs permit such interactions, all players (including those participating in the last play of the game) and club staff must wear masks or double-layered gaiters during any such encounter — to mitigate risk of transmission. Clubs that fail to enforce the requirement that players and staff wear an approved face covering during such encounters will be subject to accountability measures.”

The word “must” was underlined in the memo for effect.

Raiders’ fine a harbinger of harsher league punishment

It’s language that didn’t appear to have a chilling impact last Tuesday, but may now appear significantly more ominous coming on the heels of the Raiders’ “repeat violator” fines. Those fines included the docking of a sixth-round draft pick and a fine of $500,000 for the team and $150,000 for Gruden.

Those sanctions raised eyebrows across the league, particularly among front-office executives who believe the league will continue to escalate fines as long as some teams either ignore protocols or continually violate them out of ignorance.

There is a reason why the NFL’s executive and medical branch is cracking down, of course.

A league source told Yahoo Sports last week that players testing positive coming out of gameday spurred Tuesday’s memo. The issue is one of the most significant concerns for the NFL, largely because of the clustering that takes place during a multitude of close interactions on gameday. Not only does it complicate some of the contact tracing efforts, but it’s also the only scenario where one team infection can still have a prohibitive impact on another team simply through circumstance.

As the season has moved along and it became clear that the NFL is making the fulfillment of games a priority regardless of the number of players who test positive in a given franchise, teams have appeared to become more strident about contract tracing and coordinating efforts.

One of the most obvious examples came Sunday, when the Miami Dolphins went into their game against the Arizona Cardinals without five of their assistant coaches. The Dolphins made the move after an unidentified assistant tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday and contact tracing deemed four other assistants at risk, as well.

Such a heavy-handed response to contact tracing appears to be exactly what the NFL wants to see from franchises, particularly given that a number of infected players have taken part in games this season.

Salvon Ahmed hugs his dad, Randy, who is in the stands. Neither has a mask covering their nose and mouth. Randy's mask is on his chin.
Miami Dolphins running back Salvon Ahmed hugs his dad, Randy Ahmed, after the Dolphins beat the Cardinals on Sunday. The Dolphins were without five assistant coaches because of COVID-19 contract tracing. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

NFL ratcheting up in-game COVID protections

Tuesday’s memo highlighted that fact, then delivered the changes the NFL’s medical advisers and league management council wanted to see.

“[The game is] obviously the one time during the week that there is no choice but to go in the opposite direction of all the distancing [protocols] we’re doing during the week,” the league source said. “Then on a Monday or a Tuesday, you know someone clearly played or maybe coached while being infected. That’s a thing that goes right to the top of the list for everyone.”

The memo made it clear the NFL is trying to ratchet up its protections inside that game structure — expanding the sideline bench areas to the 20-yard lines to allow players, coaches and staffers to spread out; eliminating chairs from the sideline to prevent clustering in areas; and asking (but not mandating) that players wear a mask at essentially all times but the moments they are present in the field of play.

The request that players wear masks or gaiters at all times except on the playing field also appeared to be very lightly observed on Sunday.

However, it was clear from the memo that the only portion of the request that could be subject to “accountability measures” would be the pregame and postgame social interactions. What those measures might be isn’t clear. However, the NFL has appeared to lean on fines as its foremost tool for sending a message.

It now remains to be seen how many franchises will have their Sunday postgame interactions reviewed by the NFL and what the fallout will be for those who appeared to have broken the protocol changes made earlier in the week.

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