Imagine last week was a game week. Lions vs. Vikings, Week 17, NFC North championship on the line.
Matthew Stafford reports to work on Friday, takes a COVID-19 test on his way in the building, goes through practice and meetings and his day like normal and feels good about his team's chances to host a playoff game for the first time in 27 years.
The next day, as he's driving to Allen Park for walk-through, the Detroit Lions get the results of their COVID testing and, to everyone's surprise, Stafford's comes back positive.
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He feels fine, swears he has been social distancing and wants to play the next day in arguably the biggest game of his career.
The team tests him again, and maybe a few more times for good measure, but can't in good conscience put him on the field (not that the decision will be theirs to make).
Three days later, after the Lions have cleaned out their lockers and with a couple more tests as data points, it's determined that, yes, the test Stafford took the Friday before the game, the one the team got back Saturday — the one that forced him to watch the Vikings game from his home that may or may not still be for sale — was in fact a false positive.
That's essentially the roller coaster of a timeline Stafford and the Lions lived through the past few days, when Stafford tested positive on Friday and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday only to come off Tuesday when he was assured he was negative. In response, the Lions released a strongly worded statement that conveyed their anger even if no one said anything publicly.
"To be clear, Matthew does NOT have COVID-19 and never has had COVID-19 and the test in question was a False-Positive," the Lions said in their statement. "Also, all of Matthew’s family have been tested and everyone is negative."
Stafford has taken six COVID-19 tests since the start of training camp last week, according to the Lions — Kelly Stafford indicated it was even more in an Instagram post — and all but one have come back negative.
False positives (and false negatives, for that matter) are a fact of life in the pandemic, and the fact that Stafford was caught up with one just days into training camp is one more sign of the obstacles football faces this fall.
The NFL did not immediately respond to an inquiry Tuesday about the rate of false positives and negatives it has seen with its testing. Regardless, Stafford's false positive required him to sit out, per NFL and NFL Players Association protocols, "until he received two negative tests."
He did not miss anything meaningful when he was away from the team. Players took their physicals, got equipment and posed for pictures and videos over the weekend, and had only strength and conditioning workouts and walk-throughs on Monday and Tuesday.
But he could have, and the reality is any player who has a false positive this season probably will.
"It's one of those things that are going to be questionable for sure," Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis said in a video conference after news of Stafford's false positive was announced. "But at the end of the day, we knew coming into this that there were going to be situations like this, and just knowing that, we've got to hope the NFL and NFLPA can continue to work at it to knock things out, knock situations out that are going to come up like this. Because, yeah, this might be the first one that we've heard about but I'm sure there's more that are going to happen."
The Lions have done a commendable job instituting protocols to keep players safe, so good in fact that the NFL featured Lions coaches and team doctors on a video it distributed to all teams before the start of camp.
And keeping Stafford out of practice for a few days or a weekend game after a positive test — even a false one — is absolutely the right thing to do.
But that doesn't make it any easier to stomach the fact that a situation like what the Lions dealt with can have a serious impact on the season, not to mention take a serious toll on players and their families.
Kelly Stafford, in her social media post, called the past few days "a nightmare" and said her children were kicked off a playground and told by their school they could not return (despite their negative tests) and that she was approached in a grocery store and told she was "endangering others."
"I don't blame these scenarios on any of the people directly involved," Kelly Stafford wrote. "I understand where they are coming from, but I do blame the @NFL. I blame the @NFL for not holding themselves accountable. These are people's livelihoods that are in those results in THEIR test sites. Maybe we should be absolutely positive a person has covid before releasing that info to the world."
The NFL is not the only league dealing with this issue.
The NBA is reportedly tightening its testing protocols after a Sacramento Kings player was forced to quarantine for two days after an inconclusive test.
Perhaps the NBA will come up with a solution the NFL can adopt. More likely, we'll all have to live this fall with the reality that there will be some uncertainty around test results, positive and negative, and that both the playing fields and our lives will continue to be altered.
"Hopefully they come up with a better way or continue to work on the way that we're doing it to test everybody," Davis said. "I'm confident that everything will work out."