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Cowboys’ 'leading' attendance figures are shame of COVID-19 pandemic. And NFL is complicit in it.

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·11-min read

Jerry Jones always had a plan to increase attendance for his Dallas Cowboys games. That is the first problem here.

That the NFL has gone along with it is the second and more troubling problem.

If there is anything we have learned in Texas during this COVID-19 marathon of frustration, it’s that setting a timetable for the resumption of anything has been a practice in arrogance. In March, it was maybe we get right in a couple months. In April, that became well, hopefully things settle down by the summer. In the summer, despite unambiguous warnings from a swath of health and safety experts, many optimistically assumed we’ll be turning the corner in the fall.

Along the way, Texas forged a familiar “new normal” atop the COVID curve. The state briefly shut down in April. Before long, bars and restaurants reopened. Grocery stores stopped tracking the number of entrants. Commuters once again jammed across 12-lane mega freeways. All while Gov. Greg Abbott formed a resistant agenda, waving off any suggestion of a shutdown if a resurgent winter tide of COVID-19 washed over his state.

Well, this month that wave hit with Thursday establishing a single-day record for coronavirus infections in Texas. And it arrives right in the midst of familiar warnings across the state. Hospitals in major cities are once again shifting vital personnel and resources to COVID-19 units. Food and service industry businesses are contemplating their survival amid another swell of infections. Schools are grappling with scuttling attendance for the remainder of the 2020 academic year. And all of this is happening while a vast ribbon of small communities in West Texas are getting absolutely crushed by COVID-19 infections and unrelenting medical needs.

That’s a lot weighing on Texas.

A health care worker processes people waiting in line at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Houston. Texas is rushing thousands of additional medical staff to overworked hospitals as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients increases.   (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A health care worker processes people waiting in line at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site on Thursday in Houston. Texas is rushing thousands of additional medical staff to overworked hospitals as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients increases. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Yet, this is the same week when Jones tossed out a weirdly tone-deaf brag about how the Cowboys and AT&T Stadium were leading a resounding charge into the breach of this spiraling mess. A very measurable charge, too — to the tune of more than 30,000 fans attending the team’s last home game on Nov. 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Let me just say this,” Jones began Tuesday, speaking to the team’s flagship station 105.3 The Fan. “What we’re experiencing really around in general is these open spaces, these big places with open spaces are having success with their crowds. We lead the country [in attendance]. I’m not so sure we don’t lead the world [in attendance]. That’s a big statement. Let’s don’t go that far, because I don’t know. But in attendance for our ballgames, we’re leading everyone and significantly so. And it has everything to do with our facility in my mind. We have air circulation in that facility that’s three or four times the standards of operating rooms. And then the circulation in the stadium especially with your roofs and doors open and that type of thing.

“My whole point is that all of that, we’re not only are fitting the guidelines but we’re also enjoying a very safe experience for our fans out there. But that was the record for the year that we did out there Sunday, for the country.”

Does Jerry Jones understand COVID-19’s grip on Texas?

Jerry Jones is immensely likable. His ownership is one of the best things to ever happen to the NFL, not to mention virtually every microphone pointed in his direction. He’s easily one of the 10 most important people to ever step foot into the league. And when the day comes that he won’t be around, the NFL will be immensely worse for it.

But let’s move on to examine this chesty, leading-the-world-in-attendance humble brag.

Are you (bleeping) kidding me?

Never mind the whole thing about AT&T Stadium having an air circulation “three or four times the standards of operating rooms” — which is an unprovable statement, reeking of a late-night “three out of four doctors recommend” informercial. Seriously, which operating rooms? Is there a manual that states the conditions of all the operating rooms in America? Does this mean that if you need surgery, you’re better off getting the procedure in Jerry’s suite?

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, left, and his son, chief operating officer Stephen Jones, watch an NFL football training camp in Frisco, Texas, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (left) and his son, chief operating officer Stephen Jones, watch training camp in Frisco, Texas, in August. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Maybe it’s best to stick to Jones’ gymnastically contorted badge of honor about AT&T Stadium’s safety correlating to jaw-dropping pandemic attendance figures. That’s one of the most out-of-touch brags in the history of Jerryspeak. It’s an especially gross statement being leveraged as a justification to the ramp-up of fan attendance in the middle of a statewide catastrophe. Who doesn’t want to risk their health to go see Jerry’s 2-7 garbage fire? Especially when you can see the Cowboys’ missed tackles and poor pass protection in person. Make sure to stop by the apparel shop and try the loaded baked potato, too. After all, Dak Prescott has that second franchise tag coming.

Nobody should give a damn that Dallas is leading the country, the world or the Milky Way in fan attendance this season. And Jones might know that if he had a firm grasp on what is happening in Texas now, particularly in some of those oil field communities he has done so much business in. Maybe he should fire up the Jerry Bus and head west down Interstate 20 through Midland and Odessa, where neonatal intensive care units are being converted into ICUs for COVID-infected adults. Then he can hang a right on Interstate 10 and keep going until he gets to El Paso, where the city now has more infected people than Greece. Maybe he can talk to some nurses who are pulling 12- to 16-hour shifts and then breaking down and sobbing in their cars after work. Or maybe he can console the families who are so frustrated with the conditions facing their loved ones, some have taken to calling the hospitals and threatening the very medical personnel who are working tirelessly to save lives.

It’s worth the trip, Jerry. Go meet some people who haven’t even seen a super yacht, let alone bubbled-up on one during an NFL draft.

Texas is perfect location for Jones’ bravado

These are the people dealing with the consequences of the coronavirus. They are in the teeth of it. And none of them is going to sleep any better because the Cowboys are getting a few extra thousand fans into AT&T Stadium to face Washington on Thanksgiving. Their lives are actually more likely to be made worse by Jones’ “lead the world” attendance figures.

How?

Well, only two days after NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said on a COVID-related conference call that, “No local case clusters have been traced back to NFL games,” a Tarrant County official said eight individuals who tested positive for the coronavirus told contact tracers that they were at a Cowboys game at AT&T Stadium just before contracting the virus. For those who don’t live in Texas, AT&T Stadium is in Tarrant County. That makes those eight cases very local when it comes to the question of proving whether fans caught the virus at a Cowboys game.

Just because the NFL says there is no proof that packing 30,000 people into a Cowboys game has led to a cluster of COVID-19 infections, it’s worth taking into consideration how difficult it is to make that connection. And in turn, how easy it is for the NFL to look at Jones and say, “Well, we don’t have the concrete data to show you’re doing any harm, either.” For a league that is going a long way toward showing how seriously it takes COVID-19 in its locker rooms, that’s a tremendous leap of faith when it comes to fans. Especially when you use this simple logic:

When Texas was locked down in April and sports were put on hold in hopes of halting the virus’ spread, the infection numbers were actually better than they are now. Yet, if Jones had said last April, “I’m going to open the stadium to 30,000 fans,” he would have faced legal action from state or local government and almost certainly a sledgehammer fine or sanction from the NFL.

But now that the season has started, well, Jerry can open those turnstiles and maybe even increase the number of fans beyond what he’s already doing. After all, this is part of a plan he has always had in place. He said it himself, telling 105.3: “My plan was to increase our fans as we went through the season and move the numbers up, and we followed that plan.”

So let’s get this straight: Without knowing what the infection rate would be in his state as the season progressed, and without knowing that contact tracing would trace some infected people into his stadium, Jerry always planned on increasing the number of fans in his stadium. I’d be curious if the NFL wants to get behind that statement. Would commissioner Roger Goodell endorse that? Would he sign off on one of his team owners always having a plan in place to increase his attendance despite not really knowing what the healthy and safety outlook would be in his locality?

I doubt it. But there’s little chance Jones gets ripped for any of this. Instead, he’s the hero who opened his doors and made America great again. All while he probably should have been more worried about making America’s Team great again.

Texas is on fire with COVID-19 infections and Jerry Jones is lucky as hell to own an NFL franchise in this state. He’s lucky his team resides in a place where the governor’s chief stance on COVID-19 has been one of resistance in the face of grim medical data. He’s lucky that so many Texans are trying to move on with their lives, to the point of justifying a Sunday visit to AT&T Stadium as a vehicle to make it happen. He’s lucky that COVID-19 contact tracing has become almost impossible to pin to NFL game attendance, largely because the vast web of infections in Texas makes it virtually impossible to prove where someone contracted the virus. And most of all, Jones is lucky the NFL’s head office is looking the other way and shrugging at his “record” attendance figures, simply because local health officials haven’t told the league that, hey, maybe packing more people into a sporting event isn’t a good idea right now.

That’s a fortunate set of circumstance for a team owner in the middle of a pandemic, especially considering the Cowboys have always been the franchise facing the most staggering revenue losses from limited fan attendance. It’s also worth noting that no bottom line in the NFL has meant more to the league than the one Jones tallies at the end of the year. The more the Cowboys earn at the gate in this pandemic, the better off the NFL is when the revenue hit is absorbed at the end of this season. They’re in business together, after all.

And maybe that’s the only thing this is really about — business. If it wasn’t, surely someone in the NFL’s league office could come to the conclusion that the bursting attendance figures in Dallas fly in the face of everything that is considered safe right now. AT&T Stadium isn’t a surgical room. It’s a massive open-air stadium where control and perfection are illusions. The more people introduced into a place like that, the more trouble gets invited.

But hey, the Cowboys are leading the world in attendance. And after 25 years of winning nothing else of consequence, Jerry Jones is taking any title he can get.

Socially distanced fans look on fro the lower bowl at AT&T Stadium as the Dallas Cowboys play the Atlanta Falcons in the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Socially distanced fans look on fro the lower bowl at AT&T Stadium as the Dallas Cowboys play the Atlanta Falcons in the first half of an NFL game in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

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