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NFL Confirms More Coronavirus Cases Among Players

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK, to sports now and the NFL, which has a problem in Nashville. Today the National Football League confirmed two more players on the Tennessee Titans have tested positive for the coronavirus. That means more than 20 players and staff have now been infected. Meanwhile, a second member of the New England Patriots has also returned a positive test, all this as we head into Week 5 of the NFL regular season or at least as regular as, I guess, it's going to get in 2020. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is with us.

Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this is really the first real outbreak for the NFL, this outbreak in Tennessee. Tell me more about these positive tests today.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, these new positive tests - test results, they come a full week after the Titans closed their facility and after at least two straight days of no one on the Titans testing positive. That's worrisome because it could signal these players were infected in the larger community away from the team or that there were some other instances of violating health and safety protocols. The NFL's investigating to find out what happened.

Now, the Titans were ready to reopen their facility today because they had those two straight days of negative tests - but not anymore. And with the facility staying shut, this weekend's home game versus Buffalo could be in jeopardy. Already, last Sunday's Tennessee game against Pittsburgh was postponed and rescheduled for later in the season.

KELLY: And then what about New England? - which I guess is not an outbreak - not yet at least. But there are some big Patriots players involved.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, there are. A few days ago, it was starting quarterback Cam Newton who tested positive. Today it was star defensive back Stephon Gilmore. He had contact with Newton, and he played in New England's game against Kansas City on Monday night this week. So far, no Kansas City players were positive in tests done after the game. So right now we're waiting to see if the Patriots become a second outbreak or if the Chiefs still have problems.

KELLY: I mean, overall, how is the NFL doing compared to other sports with trying to beat this virus?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. You know, actually, despite all this that we've been talking about, they've done pretty well. Most of the cases have been isolated. They've stayed isolated. And remember, Mary Louise; the NFL always knew it was taking more of a risk by not playing in a so-called protective bubble, like the NBA, the WNBA, National Hockey League. And they've all had great success in keeping the virus away. The NFL, like Major League Baseball, is playing in home cities and traveling, and that's riskier. The NFL has always said it's about mitigating risk and not eliminating it.

KELLY: Right, which I guess it raises questions about whether that strategy holds for an entire season, trying to mitigate risk knowing you can't eliminate it.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, exactly. You know, what the NFL should do is emulate Major League Baseball. I spoke today to Emory University epidemiologist Zach Binney. He notes how baseball had a rocky start to its regular season, had a couple of outbreaks but turned things around. Here he is.

ZACH BINNEY: They read everybody the riot act. Everybody had a come-to-Jesus moment. They tightened up the protocols. And from then on, they looked good. They really didn't have many more cases, and they didn't have any more outbreaks. If that's what happens in the NFL, then they're going to be all good.

GOLDMAN: Now, Mary Louise, just this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell read his league the riot act. He sent a memo announcing tougher new protocols and punishments for those who don't comply. But it's also important to note one place the NFL can't emulate baseball is postponing a bunch of games and then rescheduling. Baseball did that with a bunch of extra doubleheaders. The NFL can't do that. You need a lot more time to recover from a football game, so for the NFL, it's a much thinner margin for error.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

KELLY: That is NPR's Tom Goldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.