The annual “Rules of Thanksgiving Family Touch Football” is my favorite column to write—this is the 10th edition, believe it or not—but this year, it’s tricky. A pandemic persists. There’s promising news about vaccines, but folks are exhausted, on edge, yelling at each other on the internet. Health officials are urging families to think of their neighbors, avoid travel, and keep their celebrations small and safe.
It’s the careful thing to do, but it’s a mega-bummer. My family will put off its annual touch football game—the world will be deprived of my blistering, 45-second 40-yard dash speed—and we’ll eat turkey with my mother via Zoom, but my mother deserves better.
Everyone deserves better.
Hopefully, next year, it’s back to normal, and we’ll return to intercepting cousins, sacking uncles, taunting family newcomers, tripping over golden retrievers, denting Buicks, botching the Statue of Liberty play, and treating our injuries with a cocktail and a bag of frozen peas.
In the meantime, here we go with a weird 2020 rules:
1. So I talked to Dr. Fauci. What, do you think I can only get bike racers and tennis players on the phone? The other day, I spoke to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the risk and feasibility of playing Thanksgiving touch football this year.
Basically, the doctor’s advice for the family touch football game mirrors the prevailing public health advice for Thanksgiving: don’t go nuts. If you play, keep it small—the safest option is playing only with people you share a home with. (If you share your home with 11 people, like the Waltons, you’re in luck! You can play 5-on-5 with a sub.) This is probably not the year for the Jumbo Turkey Bowl extravaganza with all the neighbors and the College Kids Who Just Spent 18 hours at the Airport and The Random Guy Who Nobody Knows Who Turns Out to Be Really Good.
“If you are living every single day [with] your own little pod, your own little capsule of 8 people, and you want to play 4-on-4? Go out into the field, just go play,” Dr. Fauci says. “But all of a sudden, if you say, ‘We’re having the neighborhood, and Joe Blow is coming in from wherever,’ and you have no idea who this person is, that makes it a little more risky.”
Proper touch football is played outdoors, of course, which dramatically reduces risk. But widening the crowd comes with potential hazards—and choices.
“Each family unit needs to make their own decision based on the risk-benefit assessment,” Dr. Fauci says. “If you’re going home to a grandfather who has diabetes and is obese, that’s different than if you’re going home to a 25-year-old girlfriend or boyfriend.”
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Turns out Dr. Fauci has a regular Thanksgiving touch football game himself, on the mall in Washington, D.C. “Right there on the grass between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument,” he says. “A lot of fun.”
This year’s Fauci Bowl is OFF. Hopefully: next year.
2. So what now? It sounds like the 2020 move is a small Thanksgiving dinner with the people you live with, and then a bigger virtual gathering on Zoom, or another group-chat platform. While Zoom is a pale substitute for a real family get-together, I say don’t worry! The same people who make you cry every year in real life are perfectly capable of making you cry online, too. Your Uncle Mel’s jokes are just as horrible on Zoom.
3. It’s OK if you mute Uncle Mel. He’ll never know. He’ll just keep going.
4. If you attempt a virtual family get-together, Mom must be given control of the mute button. Whomever Mom wants to mute, Mom can mute. Mom may love this option, and it’s possible all family gatherings will now be virtual.
5. Zoom has announced that it won’t put a time limit on its free meeting option on Nov. 26. That’s a nice gesture which will allow for longer family conversations. Of course, when your brother is in his second hour of talking about turkey brining—I really like to put shallots in the brine—you’ll be begging Zoom to install a time limit.
6. If you’ve called off the touch football game, I suggest a portion of the family Zoom call in which all former participants are allowed to trash talk about past contests. Scores must be recounted! Unwarranted acts of aggression must be re-litigated! Also: Grandparents can curse. Grandma and Grandpa have had it with 2020.
7. If you run into any technical difficulties on the Zoom call, ask any nearby third-grader. They’ve been on it since March.
8. I think my family is simply going to gather via Zoom and try to figure out how Wisconsin lost to Northwestern.
9. Just don’t invite Dabo Swinney over and then cancel the football game at the last minute. He does NOT like that. Ask Florida State.
10. Thanksgiving 2020 is the Hiker’s Revenge. You know how there’s always one family member who says: “Sorry to miss the touch football game—I’m going to go on a solo hike to Devil’s Jawline!” And how everyone just rolls their eyes and has another Bloody Mary? Well, who’s rolling their eyes now? A hike up Devil’s Jawline sounds pretty great!
11. Same with puzzles. I’ll try any puzzle on Thanksgiving this year. That puzzle with the fjords and the prancing unicorns playing badminton? Give it to me—I’ll do anything to avoid watching the Detroit Lions game.
12. Did you know there was a sports columnist in The Wall Street Journal who picked the Lions to win the Super Bowl this year? I hope they fired him.
13. I do like the Lions in 2021. With Jim Harbaugh. An idea so bad, it’s good.
14. There is, per usual, a full gorging of NFL action on TV on Thursday. You can start the day with the traditional Lions stinker featuring 4-6 Detroit and the 3-7 Texans, and then follow it up with a stinker between the 3-7 Cowboys and Dan Snyder’s Washington Sadness Machine, also 3-7. If your television hasn’t pulled itself off the wall and thrown itself into the trash, you’ll actually get some consequential football at 8:20 p.m. ET between the 10-0 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 6-4 Baltimore Ravens. (That is, if they play the game at all. The Ravens just lost a couple of players to Covid-19 positives, so…we’ll see what happens.)
15. How does anyone stay up for an 8:20 p.m. game on Thanksgiving? If you’re eating and drinking properly, you should be in your pajamas by 3:30 p.m., asleep by sundown, and in bed until Sunday.
16. Warning: there may be someone in your family who says this whole pandemic thing is a “hoax,” that we’re all “sheep,” and may show up on your front step without a mask, because masks are “theater.” It’s utterly OK to hand this family member a turkey sandwich, and tell him to eat it by himself in the garage.
17. This has been the year of the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. At least two people in your family believe in a complicated conspiracy involving a secret society, a sunken battleship, talking sharks, two ex-prime ministers, a rogue government agent, and, for some reason, Brett Favre. There’s also someone who thinks the 2020 Patriots are going to make the playoffs.
18. Honestly, this Thanksgiving, it’s probably best to avoid family discussions of thorny subjects like masks and lockdowns. Stick to a safer, less contentious topic, like the election.
19. The annoying part is going to be all the happy family touch football photos from families living in Covid-scarce New Zealand. I hate New Zealand. I also want to live there for the rest of my life.
20. Signature cocktail for this year’s Thanksgiving? Sure. It’s just a thermos full of bourbon, and it’s called a “2020.”
OK. So that’s it. I told you this one was going to be weird. I am sending love to you and your family this Thanksgiving, with hope you finish the week safe and full of carbs. I’m confident that next year when we do this, it’ll be all systems go, big game, no hesitation, no rules. In 2021, Grandma will be out of quarantine, and she’s going to be out for revenge.
Share Your Thoughts
What rule would you suggest for Thanksgiving 2020? Join the discussion.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com