NFL’s coronavirus testing: Potential harm

A few days ago Mike Florio questioned, on the PFT website and podcast, the ethics of the NFL’s upcoming coronavirus testing. He asks:

will the NFL’s testing requirements drain testing resources that otherwise could or would be utilized by members of the general public in a given city?

Each of the NFL’s 32 teams will be testing at least 120 people per day during their preseason training camps, which start July 28. That’s at least 3,840 tests per day.

As Florio summarizes, the NFL doesn’t believe their testing is a problem, as they are using a private national lab for the testing. So, teams won’t be utilizing public resources (e.g. government-funded testing facilities or pop-up testing facilities). Further, the NFL’s provider, BioReference Laboratories, isn’t even diverting their own resources from the general public, but rather expanding their capacity to meet the NFL’s demand.

The NFL’s reasoning is oversimplified, even from a utilitarian perspective. Granting the NFL hasn’t diverted existing labs (and their technicians’ labor) away from serving the public health needs of communities, to meet the NFL’s demand, BioReference Laboratories will need to order more testing supplies. The harm is that this increased demand will stress already precarious local and global supply chains even further, leading to more shortages and increased prices.

It may seem that the NFL’s increase in demand is negligible compared to the broader market. The New York Times reports that, in the week ending July 25, there were 780,000 people in the US tested for coronavirus per day. The NFL’s 3,840 days will be an increase of merely 0.49%. Still, as that same report makes clear, most states are testing less than the minimum needed to manage the growing US outbreak. While some labs are still running below capacity, in hard-hit areas many testing sites are turning people away. The problem is a shortage of testing supplies. Further, these problems are worst in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

I’m sure that, at the national level, it will be hard to detect effects from the NFL’s coronavirus testing. But it would be naive not to expect a negative impact in many local areas. In areas where demand for critical testing materials already outstrips supply, the NFL’s testing will only make these problems worse. Even if BioReference Laboratories draws from suppliers outside geographic areas experiencing shortages, they still will make it harder for local labs to resupply. It’s implausible that the NFL’s testing program won’t lead to days with longer lines and more people turned away at testing sites in some locations, even if it’s difficult to demonstrate these effects conclusively.

I don’t claim here to have uncovered any particularly deep insights into the ethical issues of the NFL’s testing. The NFL’s moral justification for its testing program is shallow — and so, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t take particularly deep analysis to uncover its flaws. Sometimes problems are within relatively short “epistemic reach” (as philosophers would say), but it goes against self-interest to take the step or two in reasoning needed to see them (so we don’t).

Let’s take one more step. You might argue that the good of having NFL football (entertainment and stress relief, jobs) outweighs the harms of a few less people tested in Houston on a random Tuesday in early August. But this argument assumes that the NFL’s testing, and the harms it inflicts, will enable the NFL to actually have its season. While I think the NFL’s testing is likely to greatly reduce COVID-19 outbreaks among its teams, I think there’s a good chance (call it 50/50) that the season is cancelled anyway. Even with greatly reduced spread of coronavirus among NFL personnel, the odds of a season-ending tragedy, like the death of a player or coach, are still not small. The pandemic itself could derail the NFL season, in ways that are entirely outside the NFL’s control — e.g. case counts could soar so much this fall that lockdowns keep NFL personnel home. So, the expected value of the NFL’s testing program is greatly reduced by the risk that it will all come to nothing anyway.