All it took was a photo.
When ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the league was beginning to mull over whether or not to proceed with Week 11’s game between the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs being held in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, it was mostly considered fluff. We’ve heard these kinds of concerns many times (more on that in a bit), so most dismissed it out of hand.
But as photos came online on Tuesday, the narrative was set.
The field wasn’t safe to play on.
Those two photos had a resounding effect on public perception as well as on the players. It’s easy to understand why the players would be concerned both between the visual evidence and the reports officials were providing about the condition of the field.
But this is a very, very dangerous precedent that’s been set. And it’s going to involve players, media and fans moving forward.
The optics ruled the day
Imagine none of us had seen the photos of the field conditions on Monday. Imagine Schefter had never run with his reporting on the state of the field. Imagine the first image you had seen of the field was this on Tuesday after laying down new sod:
We’re inside #MexicoCity stadium checking field. @kmbc pic.twitter.com/l6Nedk5oKY— Lara Moritz KMBC (@LaraMoritzKMBC) November 13, 2018
Would anyone have been as quick to defend player safety on a field that looks like that?
Besides, when have we seen photos of NFL fields on Mondays? The Chiefs played on their home field eight days after hosting a Ed Sheeran concert at Arrowhead Stadium. What do we think the field looked like afterward? Without photos, there was no concern for player safety or any calls to move the game.
USC played Cal at the Coliseum on Saturday. Did you see pictures of the field? Did anyone have any concerns about the field heading into Sunday when Rams WR Cooper Kupp tore his ACL?
What this really came down to from the outside was the nature of the photos swaying public opinion. And that’s incredibly dangerous the next time we see photos of a chewed up field on a Monday. I’m guessing the crew at the Coliseum did a fantastic job turning the field around to get it in shape in less than 24 hours. Why we’re certain the crew at the Azteca couldn’t get a field in NFL shape in a week’s time, I’m not sure.
Because we’ve seen this before.
An NFL game was moved due to field conditions
Forget the Azteca. Think instead of FedEx Field’s skid mark. Or NRG Stadium’s patchwork. Or the situation at Hard Rock Stadium just two weeks ago.
The sky opened up during the first half as Miami played Duke on November 3:
How long after was the field playable? The Hurricanes aren’t scheduled to play there again until November 24.
But the Miami Dolphins? Yeah, they played there the next day. And not surprisingly, there were significant complaints pre-game with one league source telling Schefter:
The field is horrendous. It’s a complete shitshow.
In that game, Dolphins LT Laremy Tunsil, Jets LB Tarell Basham and Dolphins RT Ja’Wuan James all suffered knee injuries. Former Ram DE Robert Quinn limped off at the end of the game.
For what it’s worth, this isn’t a new issue as the field was re-sodded in late September last year.
Field conditions aren’t an issue specific to stadia outside the US or the NFL’s purview. Now that a game has literally been relocated due to field conditions, the NFL has opened Pandora’s Box.
And it matters who’s in charge.
The players moved the game
Reporting on the decision to move the game came down to the players threatening not to play:
Team officials tell me the threat of a player boycott over field conditions is main reason why the NFL moved game from Mexico to LA.— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) November 13, 2018
That effect of the players not wanting to play on the field moreso than the field itself was what motivated the NFL to decide to move the game.
So what happens the next time players threaten to boycott?
What would have happened two weeks ago if Jets players had looked at this and just said hell no?
In non-football misery news, shoutout to the Hard Rock Stadium grounds crew, out there legit working to dry this field with a bunch of leaf blowers. Feels like they have a long night ahead... pic.twitter.com/vxR5YEblpe— Christy Chirinos (@ChristyChirinos) November 4, 2018
Certainly players are fair to feel emboldened now that the NFL heeded their calls for safety. Rams LT Andrew Whitworth was certainly appreciative:
.@RamsNFL Left Tackle Andrew Whitworth joined Jim & Pat on Movin' The Chains & talked about their game vs. the Chiefs being moved back to LA.— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) November 13, 2018
"Hats off to the league for doing the right thing" pic.twitter.com/nFZtvWsfg4
The league didn’t really include us, but I think we did a great job of going through the [NFLPA], making sure they understood the concerns and getting those guys kinda in our corner. Of course, they always are. Just understanding the concerns the guys had and that it’s a legitimate worry for guys. I think it’s important to realize that, one, it’s great for the PA to stand up for us and help us make sure guys are always taken care of and, two, that it’s awesome that guys voiced their concerns. Also, hats off to the league for doing the right thing. You can’t always just say ‘hey, they’re trying to get us.’ When they do make a decision that’s in the best interest, regardless of the pressures, I think you have to say thank you for making a quality decision.
But what happens next time? The NFL has received praise for their decision to move the game, and understandably so. So what is the league going to do when photos surface on a Monday after a game or other event at a field that gets chopped up and players call out for the same protection? It can’t just dismiss them outright now. They heeded the Rams’ and/or Chiefs’ players’ voices. They can’t turn back now.
This was, all extents and purposes, a lose-lose situation. The NFL and Azteca officials obviously should have prevented this from happening in the first place. And sure, they tried. They knew this was likely going to be an issue of concern back in August; Rams VP/COO Kevin Demoff visited the field with league officials in October and said the playing surface was “very safe.”
What happens the next time things change is anybody’s guess, but the league and teams can’t simply feign inability now. They can’t say their hands are tied.
If that leads to improved field conditions league-wide and a reinvestment in player safety, that’s a benefit for everyone involved.
Maybe we just need more photos of field conditions on Mondays to hit Twitter.
Cause it sure as hell worked this time.