Here's why NFL is being strict on coaches wearing masks on gameday, even when players don't

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·6-min read

With a historic level of fines issued for teams and NFL coaches over mask protocols this week, the league has now set a precedent and delivered a message for the remainder of the 2020 season: Coaches will either wear their protective face coverings properly, or they’ll pay dearly. And that goes more than double for the franchises that employ them.

The league levied $1.75 million in collective fines through Tuesday, dropping the hammer on five coaches — who were fined $100,000 each — and also hitting each of their franchises with a $250,000 fine.

The offending bunch: Both coaches from the Monday night tilt, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Jon Gruden and the New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton, and Sunday’s offenders, the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, the Denver Broncos’ Vic Fangio and the San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan.

All five franchises were made aware of the fines with a significant emphasis on the fact that the offenses took place despite a stern memo last week warning all teams and coaches that they would be held accountable for adhering to mask protocols, a league source told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday.

Las Vegas Raiders GM Mike Mayock, left, embraces head coach Jon Gruden after defeating the New Orleans Saints in an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Raiders coach Jon Gruden (right) and general manager Mike Mayock embrace after defeating the Saints in the first game in Las Vegas' new stadium. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

NFL doctor’s previous warnings for coaches on sidelines

The fines were meant to send a message and make an example of the coaches — but the league still hasn’t stifled this pressing question:

With the NFL boasting almost spotless COVID-19 testing results, and with players allowed to go without masks on the sidelines of games, why is the NFL so adamant that head coaches wear protective face coverings during games?

As it turns out, Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s top medical officer, already answered this before Week 2, on the league’s own television network, no less. That might be part of why commissioner Roger Goodell came down so hard on offending coaches in the past 48 hours.

“As we’ve said all along, the tests are not what keep us safe,” Sills told the NFL Network last week. “The tests are simply a report card or a measuring stick to show how we’re doing with all our other risk mitigation efforts. And we know that one of the biggest exposure times is if someone is yelling or speaking really loudly, that’s when you can really project a lot of aerosolized droplets into the air. So, again, tests are not perfect. And even though everyone tests negative, that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t possibly be infected. So we want to make sure we do all we can to mitigate that risk.”

So in layman’s terms, one of these head coaches could test negative but still carry COVID-19 into a game due to faulty testing. And if that happens, the NFL wants to be sure that the guys screaming at players the most on the sideline have masks on for the protection of others. This despite the fact that most of the NFL’s coaches appear to be pulling their masks down to scream anyway.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 20: Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the second half of the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 20, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
It has been a rough week for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. He's dealing with massive injuries to his team, arguing over field conditions at the Meadowlands and is now looking at a lighter paycheck after receiving a hefty fine from the league for not adequately covering his face during Sunday's game against the Jets. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Optics or not, NFL is going to remain strict

At the very least, it’s notable that the two coaches who faced each other Monday night have both already contracted the virus. Payton was the first NFL coach to reveal he had the coronavirus in March. The Raiders’ Gruden became the latest to reveal he had COVID-19, when he surprisingly (and briefly) revealed the news after his team’s win over New Orleans. The Los Angeles Chargers’ Anthony Lynn and Philadelphia Eagles’ Doug Pederson also previously announced having the virus.

What’s clear from the NFL is it doesn’t want the centerpiece faces of the league essentially blowing off safety protocols set in place. And it most especially doesn’t want them doing it after the league has gone to great lengths to drill down on how important the pandemic rules are for teams.

Some coaches taking a lax approach to the rules isn’t breaking news. Yahoo Sports spoke to a multitude of team employees at the start of training camp in July, and several pointed to the coaching staffs as the biggest rule benders (or breakers) in their buildings.

That’s not something the NFL wants to become a habit, especially in public or on nationally televised games. And Sills might have summed it up last week on the NFL Network, admitting that part of the league’s insistence with coaches stems from setting the right example in a time when following protocols is so important.

“I think that we want to continue to emphasize how important face coverings are throughout the week,” Sills said, “leading up to the game, in all the team activity, and also the standard that we’re asking fans to uphold. It’s just good practice across the board, and I think it’s something that we all feel is one more step we can take to mitigate risk.”

Whether that’s optics or not, the NFL has data to back up a very important point: Thus far, the league’s press for stringent regulations inside each franchise — coupled with daily testing — has been a monumental success. That includes the latest batch of COVID-19 testing following the first week of games and travel, which was released Tuesday and revealed zero new positive results among players.

As Sills was framing that data last week, those numbers are why the NFL isn’t loosening the regulation on coaches wearing masks. In essence, if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it.

“Clearly, what we’ve been doing to this point has been successful,” Sills said. “And so we certainly don’t want to take our foot off the gas pedal and back away from the things that we know have been working to keep everyone safe.”

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