When the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV in February last year, it was simply another National Football League (NFL) championship triumph, complete with the pomp surrounding one of the world’s most-watched sporting events and the celebratory gatherings across the United States before, during and after the game.
Within weeks, COVID-19 ripped through the country. The pandemic threw big-time American sports into turmoil.
The annual college basketball tournament, known as “March Madness”, was cancelled.
Major professional baseball, basketball and hockey leagues were forced to cancel games and overhaul their procedures.
The NFL aimed to move forward with severely altered protocols, anticipating a full off-season and regular season set to begin in September.
If dealing with the pandemic was not a massive enough crisis for the league, the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in May, had an outsized effect on the NFL and its players, 70 percent of whom are Black.
Now, as the Kansas City Chiefs prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl LV against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, many are marvelling that the season is culminating in two of the best teams facing off when so much could have sent it off the rails.
“Credit goes to the organisations and the players, who came together to stay disciplined” through what could have turned out to be a polarising season marked by subpar play on the field, US sports commentator Jon Meterparel told Al Jazeera.
This Sunday, just 22,000 spectators will be in attendance, about a third of the Tampa stadium’s capacity. The league will provide N95 masks to all attendees.
Top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has said he is comfortable with the outdoor gathering “as long as they wear masks and as long as there’s physical distancing”.
The NFL had just begun its off-season when the coronavirus outbreak began in the US – a distinct advantage it had over other professional sports.
That gave league officials more time to consider how they would proceed and coordinate with the players’ union on a contract tailored to the pandemic.
What they agreed to was an approach that emphasised increasingly strict precautions: Daily testing, restrictions on players’ activities in their free time, and aggressive contract tracing and quarantining.
The league and players’ union eschewed creating a neutral “bubble”, where teams gather and collectively quarantine during the season, an approach taken by the National Basketball Association.
While each team had several players who opted out of the season because of the pandemic, the overall strategy was widely considered a success, with the NFL teaming up with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to see if the general public can learn from the approach.
A resulting CDC study said elements of the NFL’s strategy in limiting the spread of the coronavirus could be applied “to settings such as long-term care facilities, schools, and high-density environments”.
Allen Sills, NFL’s chief medical officer, said the season showed the league was “able to show that you can play a team sport while minimising risk to the participants”.
That extended to spectators, Sills told reporters on Sunday.
Initially fans could not attend games. By week six, they were gradually allowed into stadiums at reduced capacity.
Sills said the league had not “traced any outbreaks or cluster of cases to any of the places we have hosted fans”.
Under the league’s strict contact tracing policy, which relied on players using “proximity recording devices”, those who came in close contact with infected individuals were required to quarantine for several days.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said games would not be rescheduled for “competitive considerations”. That meant games would only be moved if there were concerns an outbreak had not been contained, not if key players would have to sit out due to the precautions.
It created some unique scenarios.
The Denver Broncos were forced to field practice squad wide receiver, Kendall Hinton, playing quarterback – a crucial offensive position – after their entire quarterback roster was made ineligible due to coronavirus precautions.
He fared poorly, completing only one pass and throwing two interceptions in nine attempts.
Another unlikely circumstance came during the playoffs when the Cleveland Browns took on the Pittsburgh Steelers with their head coach Kevin Stefanski watching from home.
“You really have to double down on the protocols and trust the protocols and make sure that everybody’s safety is priority number one,” Stefanski told The Washington Post in January.
Social justice protest
In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the US national anthem, protesting racial injustice.
The silent act kicked off a firestorm of criticism, fuelled largely by former President Donald Trump, who called for kneeling players to be fired.
NFL Commissioner Goodell, at the time, suggested Kaepernick’s actions, which were replicated at venues across the world, showed a lack of patriotism. The star quarterback was later forced out of the league.
In 2020, as racial protests swept the country following the police killing of Floyd, players spoke out.
Several players released a video in June calling on the league to “condemn racism and a systemic oppression of Black people … [and] admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting”.
“We must have the answer today, and we will work with players, staff and more to arrive at a timely response,” Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, a Pakistani immigrant, said in a statement.
This time, the NFL’s response was starkly different. Goodell swiftly released a video saying the league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”.
“We are listening, I am listening,” said Goodell.
The first week of games in 2020 was defined by end zones emblazoned with the phrases “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us”; league-sanctioned moments of silence for racial inequality; the playing of the Black national anthem “Raise every voice and sing” at games; and players allowed to wear the names of victims of police brutality on their helmets.
The NFL, through its Inspire Change programme, has also pledged $250m over 10 years for social justice initiatives.
Kenneth Shropshire, a professor of Global Sport and the CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, told Al Jazeera the league’s shift was a perfect storm: The striking video of Floyd’s death, the pandemic pause in sports giving NFL brass “more time to contemplate”, and less antagonism from Trump.
“The Kaepernick moment was one where the league was [saying] let’s shut this down. We don’t need this. The theme of the day was this is distraction from playing,” said Shropshire.
“And to the credit of players like Eric Reid and Kenny Stills, they persisted, even with the potential wrath of being someone who is never signed again, like Kaepernick,” he said.
Shropshire also noted that the initiative “coincided with one of the worst hiring seasons for African American coaches”, with only one Black coach hired among seven openings the past several weeks, despite “outstanding candidates”.
Kaepernick has called the NFL initiatives “propaganda” and a disingenuous attempt to seize on the cultural zeitgeist, while accusing the league of “blackballing” Reid, who went unsigned in 2020.
‘One of the great matchups’
As an unquestionably unique season reaches its culmination on Sunday, sports commentators are certain American football fans will witness history.
On the field, the game pits the oldest – and arguably the greatest – quarterback to start a Super Bowl: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 43-year-old Tom Brady, who won a record six championships with the New England Patriots.
Up against him is a young superstar quarterback, the Kansas City Chiefs’ 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes, who won his first Super Bowl last year.
Tony Romo, who will be announcing the game for US broadcaster CBS, told USA Today this is “one of the great matchups in sports history”.
Given the past year’s challenges, “the fact that the NFL completed another successful season is nothing short of fantastic,” said US sports commentator Jon Meterparel.