by Keisha Ray, PhD
On Sunday February 7, 2021, during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, 25,000 people gathered at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida to watch the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl. On the day before the Super Bowl, on February 6, 2021, Florida recorded over 7,000 cases of COVID-19 infections and a 7 day death average of over 8,000. So far, Florida has recorded over 1.7 million cases of COVID-19 and 57,000 deaths. At the opening of the game President and First Lady Biden held a moment of silence for the over 440,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. After President Biden bowed his head the camera turned to the crowded stadium of people mixed in with 30,000 cut-outs, and 7,500 vaccinated health care employees. During a pandemic, it is unethical for Florida and the NFL to hold an event of this size. This complete willingness to put football and profits over American lives shocks me as a bioethicist and reluctant fan of the NFL. This might be it for me.
Over the years the NFL has made it extremely difficult to be a fan. From ignoring and outright denying the cognitive effects of playing football many of its players experienced, to using unscientific explanations of race to pay Black players less money when it is discovered that playing football contributed to their cognitive decline, to its soft handling of domestic violence committed against women by its players, to its treatment and blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for his stance on violence against Black people, the NFL has some serious ethical and moral issues. As a bioethicist, Black person, woman, and as a person who tries to live as much of an ethical life as I can, every year it gets harder to be a fan of the game.
This latest afront to ethics, like its others, has great consequences. This time it’s a public health issue. Holding an event with this many people in attendance will statistically result in positive COVID-19 people. Really the question is “How many?” Attendees were required to wear masks and hand sanitizer was provided but it is impossible to enforce these rules. After watching the game for just under an hour I saw people in the stands without a mask. I saw players and attendees wearing masks improperly, and frequently there was not any social distancing. At the minimum, the safety features that protect people from the virus should be enforced but they were not. There is no safe way to hold an event with 25,000 people and players and coaches during a pandemic. Even if people were to follow the rules the risk to public health is too great.
But public health was not on display. Money, football, and fandom were on display; however, a supposed appreciation of health care was paraded throughout the event. Quick shots of the 7,500 vaccinated health care workers were routinely shown, “Health care workers are our heroes” was displayed in bright lights on electronic billboards. An ICU nurse even did the coin toss at the beginning of the game. But there is no way to appreciate the work that health care workers have done, and continue to do during this pandemic and then hold the equivalent of a super spreader event. Putting over 25,000 people in a stadium is a slap in health care workers’ faces. It says that the NFL and Florida don’t care about public health or the 440,000 Americans who have died during the pandemic or the health care workers that work long hours, sacrifice personal time and health, and sacrifice time with their family and friends to treat patients who are sick with COVID-19. Calling health care workers “heroes” when you put this many people in a stadium is nothing but lip service, something the NFL has shown to be very good at during its many ethical blunders.
The Super Bowl is not just one event; it’s the actual game, it’s practices, it’s interviews, it’s meetings, it’s celebrating, it’s parties, it’s gatherings, it’s performances and preparations for those performances, it’s all of the things that will have dire consequences for us all because public health teaches us that we are all connected. What happens on a Sunday night in Tampa Bay, Florida will affect us all. As a bioethicist, I don’t know how much longer I can overlook the NFL’s disregard for human life and continue to call myself a fan.