Paul Sullivan: Thanks, NFL, for giving us something to talk about during the sports shutdown
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Paul Sullivan: Thanks, NFL, for giving us something to talk about during the sports shutdown

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Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles raises his arms after throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown to teammate tight end Zach Ertz against the Houston Texans on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles raises his arms after throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown to teammate tight end Zach Ertz against the Houston Texans on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Yong Kim/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

CHICAGO - As we collectively experience our maiden voyage through a sports-free world, we're learning every day what is and isn't important to us.

Who's the most overpriced free agent? Whether to plunk the Astros? MJ or LeBron?

Not important.

Social distancing? Staying calm? Appreciating time spent with loved ones?

Very important.

But some things remain in the middle ground, and everyone is free to decide whether it's right or wrong to pay attention to matters that seem relatively insignificant in the big picture.

One of those is the NFL, which not only began its free-agent season without delay but basically is the only game in town, or more specifically, the only game in America.

With no competition from other professional sports leagues, all of which have shut down indefinitely during the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL is dominating ESPN, sports-talk radio and the sports pages. It always has acted like a monopoly, and now it truly is.

I spent much of Tuesday following the Tom Brady updates, from him leaving the Patriots to speculation surrounding various landing spots to the report of his imminent signing with the Buccaneers. I was glued to the Bears' big moves - trading for quarterback Nick Foles, signing Robert Quinn and dumping first-round bust Leonard Floyd - and frequently scrolled through Twitter to catch up on Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Cam Newton and the offseason quarterback carousel.

Obviously going cold turkey during the shutdown was not going to work for me.

Maybe it does for you, and if so, I applaud your willpower.

Some believe the NFL should have delayed the signing period. NFL spinmeister Mike Florio wrote that the league needed to "send a clear message" that the world has changed, as if we need a sports league to state the obvious.

Understandably, the notion of players being rewarded with multimillion-dollar contracts while millions suffer financially is bad optics for the NFL. Perhaps it could have postponed free agency for a month or so and joined the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and other sports leagues in an all-encompassing timeout while we try to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus.

But no one's health is being jeopardized by the free-agent season, as it would by playing games.

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo told a Sun-Times reporter speaking to him through a fence at the team's complex in Mesa, Ariz., that it was "selfish right now that football's going on like it's normal."

"Because it's not normal," he said. "These aren't normal times. You're standing behind a fence right now because this is how abnormal it is."

While these are not normal times, I have to disagree with Rizzo about the NFL's stance, and I would guess because he's a die-hard Dolphins fan, he's one of the millions following the free-agent signings.

If anything, the sense of normalcy the NFL news provided helps some of us get through the crisis by taking our minds off of it for a minute or two, as well as reminding us there's something to look forward to when things settle down, like watching a Buccaneers-Bears game at Soldier Field.

Distractions, sometimes, are good.

"Technologically, all this (free-agent) stuff can be handled without human contact," Angels manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday from Tempe, Ariz. "I don't see anything wrong with it. Everybody else needs something else to watch and look at. I've had enough of watching CNN, quite frankly. I'm over (watching) it. ... It's getting to the point where it's getting unwatchable, and I don't like the message in general because I want to see the positive component of this also.

"So the NFL being available is a good thing. It's a good thing people are able to watch (the free-agent reports). The respite is good. We weren't around for World War II and what that was all about. But there had to be some very difficult moments during that time, and everyone was looking (to baseball) and baseball was played during that time to help people get into a different mindset."

Maddon said it's obvious people need to take social-distancing recommendations seriously.

"This is where technology really should shine," he said. "We have so many methods of being in touch right now that doesn't require us being (together). The thing we've been bemoaning, the fact nobody talks to each other anymore, nobody sits on the porch and interacts with their neighbors, right now we have this item that's been invented ... and right now it can absolutely shine if we utilize it properly.

"Of course the NFL should carry on, and as they carry on, they should abide by the rules in place. But people need distractions right now and they need a positive message to hold on to and not constantly look at a stream of negativity that's being portrayed via television."

If the NFL were in season, obviously it would have shut down like baseball and every other league. If it didn't, that would be the definition of selfish.

Functioning like it always does during an offseason is its right, just as it's your option to follow the NFL news or turn the channel.

There's nothing to apologize for if you're one of those fans imagining what Brady will look like in a Bucs jersey, or how Quinn and Khalil Mack will complement each other on the Bears defense, or if Foles will challenge or replace Mitch Trubisky as starting quarterback.

This is what we've been programmed to do since we first learned to read about and play sports. There's nothing wrong with maintaining interest in sports during the crisis, as long as the goal of flattening the curve remains the priority.

We're only one week into the shutdown, but so far it has been another reminder of how dominant the NFL is compared with other sports leagues.

Baseball's offseason couldn't carry us through something like this. It moves too slowly, only a few teams are usually in the mix for the biggest stars and agent Scott Boras basically controls the narrative, as he did in December when announcing agreements for Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon during the winter meetings.

The NBA has a spectacular free-agent season, but it's front-loaded, with all the big contracts dispersed in the opening day or week.

This NFL offseason already is off to a great start, and the draft in April will make it even more interesting.

We're all able to walk and chew gum at the same time, at least theoretically, so we also should be able to follow the rules of social distancing as we follow the news of our favorite NFL players.

Thanks, NFL, for helping to provide some normalcy during these abnormal times.

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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