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The NFL starts Thursday night. It will kick off its 101st season.

It has not come without consternation and confusion, which makes it like every other aspect of life in 2020.

But the National Football League has been arguably the one organization across all sports — and all of society, really — that has been deliberate and determined to plow through the pandemic.

From the draft and practices to training sessions and free agency, through all of it, the NFL has been there. And through all that, the only number that matters as we get ready for toe to meet leather and a high kick was staggeringly great Tuesday.

The NFL tested 2,641 players and 5,708 staff and other personnel between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, and one player and seven staffers tested positive. No matter how many TDs Patrick Mahomes throws or how many games Tom Brady wins or anything else, if the NFL maintains a 0.038 percent positive test rate for players and a 0.122 percent rate for staff, then the season's a success.

When there are billions at stake, the sacrifice and extra measures make perfect sense. So the NFL is ready to play.

Why isn't the state of Tennessee?

That's right. The most-bet-on sport in America starts tonight, and if a Tennessean wants to legally bet on the Chiefs to cover the 9.5-point spread or the final score to be more than 55 points or any of the other proposition bet offerings out there, well, your state leadership failed you.

Despite a state-run betting option being passed by the state Legislature in April 2019 and enacted into state law more than 14 months ago, here we sit without one. It's legal; it's just not operational.

Sure, the folks that want to bet on tonight's action — the Super Bowl champion Chiefs hosting the Texans will be the most-watched TV event since Kansas City won the Super Bowl in February and the only worry about corona was whether you had enough limes — will find a way.

There are a slew of options, legal and illegal, but that's not the point of not having state-funded point spreads.

First, bettors are creatures of habit and the state not being ready to roll for kickoff forces people to find other ways. That's like being a turkey farmer but closing your barn for the month of November.

Are they close? Almost assuredly. Multiple reports last month had the Tennessee Lottery bigwigs pledging to have online and smartphone betting options no later than Nov. 1.

But who knows? The original promises included a pledge to be ready for last year's NFL playoffs and bowl games and again for March Madness, which was cancelled because of the pandemic.

So despite the extra time, Tennessee leaders are still not ready, and risk pushing tens of thousands of potential customers — or more — toward other online options or illegal operations. One of the delays was making sure all of the four approved gaming partners were ready to roll at the same time.

The state gaming officials will not identify the four, but at least two renowned betting operations, DraftKings and Action247.com, have started ad campaigns on local radio stations such as ESPN 105.1 the Zone in town, so that figures to be half the field.

Starting from the same lily pad seems fair to those betting companies, but it's shortchanging the Tennesseans who want to bet tonight and those who could benefit from the extra revenue stream into the state tax coffers.

With the hunger for football, the absence of wagering options during the sports shutdown and other precautions during the pandemic, the American Gaming Association has monster expectations for NFL betting in general and online wagering in particular.

According to the group's annual survey, nearly 34 million Americans plan on betting on an NFL game this season, and 75 percent of that number told surveyors it's important to place wagers through legal operators.

So despite a clear need across Tennessee — missing the first two months of the NFL season will cost the state millions in a time when there are so many in our state and so many agencies from Memphis to Maryville facing shortfalls because of the coronavirus — we simply were not ready for kickoff.

And while I'll be the first to say "Better late than never" come Nov. 1, this tardiness is costing all of us.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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Jay Greeson
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