Harsh sanctions could be handed down to teams that flout the NFL’s coronavirus policies as outlined in a memo distributed to teams today. As the first three weeks of the season went as smoothly as could be expected during a pandemic, Week 4 spun into chaos as two games were postponed and an officiating crew was isolated.
The situation escalated when the Titans, who were required to shut their facilities down after pushing last week’s game out, held an open practice. As additional players are testing positive, it puts another game in jeopardy. ESPN’s Dan Graziano was the first to post the memo, outlining severe consequences.
Most notably, the memo uses language that has not been used before in threatening sanctions.
Protocol violations that result in the virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline, including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game.
The term forfeit has not been tossed around like this until this year. In 101 seasons, there has not been a single forfeit in the NFL, although there were a few weather cancelations in the 1920s and 1930s in an era where gate receipts were a vital source of income and paid travel expenses.
The governing documents of the league do not allow the commissioner to declare a forfeit as a means of discipline in the first place. This is partially due to the fact that the punishment on the losing team is far outweighed by the disproportionate competitive advantage for the winning team. A forfeit is only declared by a team that refuses to take the field, with a lone exception that the commissioner may declare a forfeit when a team leaves the field without actually declaring a forfeit. The Football Operations manuals, backed by similar language in the league’s constitution, state the following:
The Commissioner (except in cases of disciplinary action; see last section on “Removing Team from Field”), and his representatives, including Referees, are not authorized to unilaterally declare forfeits. A forfeit occurs only when a game is not played because of the failure or refusal of one team to participate. In that event, the other team, if ready and willing to play, is the winner by a score of 2–0.
There are other measures at the Commissioner’s disposal, which is reserved for essentially an unthinkable amount of tampering by an opponent, that allow for a reversal of a victory or replaying a game from a certain point or in its entirety. Not even a botched pass interference call would invoke these powers under Rule 17 in the rulebook.
I devoted an entire chapter in my book So You Think You Know Football? to extraordinary situations such as cancellations, postponements, forfeits, and unfair acts.
More than likely, the NFL will resort to draft choice penalties as its harshest sanction. According to Quirky Research, there have been 34 times a commissioner has imposed a penalty of one or more draft choices. Because game cancelations and rescheduling has financial impact on the teams, the league, and the television networks, there will also be financial penalties.
Despite not having the ability to unilaterally impose a forfeit, it does not mean that the NFL has not devised a plan to effect such a punishment indirectly. A team that has exercised negligence or violated quarantine mandates might find that the league is reluctant to postpone or reschedule a game. If that team does not have enough players to safely conduct the game, the league may force the hand of a forfeit on a team, and in the case they do not accept the forfeit, the commissioner may step in and do so in the one exception allotted in the constitution.
More likely is that the NFL would cancel the game or several games outright and playoff seedings would be handled by win percentage in the case of an unequal number of games. A forfeit would add the unearned win for the opponent, with the only restriction being that the 2-0 score does not factor in score-based tiebreakers, which aren’t until the sixth level of the tiebreaker procedure.
By not ruling out the ability to create a forfeit situation, the league is wielding it as a weapon that it hopes enforces tighter compliance with the pandemic protocols. A weapon it hopes not to use.