It took less than a week for Major League Baseball’s efforts to restart its 2020 season to run into gigantic problems.
At least four teams ― the Washington Nationals, Oakland A’s, Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants ― temporarily shut down summer training camps this week because the players either hadn’t been tested or hadn’t received results in a timely manner over Fourth of July weekend. Atlanta Braves star Freddie Freeman tested positive for the coronavirus and is sick at home. At least three of his teammates tested positive too. A growing number of players, including two Atlanta veterans, have decided to opt out of playing this season, and more could soon follow.
Other leagues have experienced their own issues. Last week, Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas pulled out of a league-wide tournament that began this week after 10 players and a staff member tested positive inside the MLS bubble in Orlando, Florida. Nashville FC postponed a match scheduled for Wednesday and is reportedly backing out of the event after five players tested positive.
The rising number of cases in Florida, meanwhile, has heightened concerns about the NBA and WNBA’s plans to resume play in their own bubble environments at Disney’s sports complex in Orlando and IMG Academy in Bradenton, respectively. The NFL season isn’t scheduled to begin until September, but the league’s players union is already concerned about its return plans ahead of the start of training camp later this month. The NFL, union president J.C. Tretter wrote this week, evidently “believes that the virus will bend to football.”
With hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at stake, professional sports leagues spent months crafting plans to resume or begin seasons that had been halted by the pandemic. But now they are running up against the reality of America’s failed response to the virus, which has led to nationwide spikes in the number of cases and testing and medical equipment shortages in some states, including many that are home to professional sports franchises.
That has led public health experts and an increasing number of players to ask, once again, whether these sports leagues should be trying to return at all.
Health experts are loath to offer a definitive answer. But amid the spike in cases and the problems dogging the MLB and MLS restarts, their worries that leagues simply can’t meet the challenges posed by the current outbreak are even deeper than they were two months ago, when the leagues began crafting their plans.
“Resuming professional sports is a really high-risk activity right now,” said Summer Johnson McGee, the dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “The plans were put in place with the best of intentions and hopes that we would be at a place nationally where we could resume these activities. And what we’ve seen is that we’re definitely not there, except maybe in a handful of states.”
Testing Is Vital ― And Tough To Execute
South Korea’s baseball league and Germany’s soccer league returned in May, and the English Premier League resumed a month later, all playing without fans in the stands. None have reported major problems. But Germany and South Korea have acted much more aggressively to contain the virus, allowing them to resume activities, including sports, that still carry far more risk in the U.S.
“We are not Germany,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at the Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta. “If we’re able to bring sports back, it’s going to be harder, more expensive and more dangerous, because we simply have so many more cases of the virus.”
The National Women’s Soccer League, the first major American league to return, has had no major problems since eight of its nine teams gathered to play in Utah. NWSL’s return suggests a bubble plan can work, but its situation is difficult to compare to those of the other leagues. NWSL is comparably small in terms of its number of players and game day staff, and it returned to play just before case numbers began to seriously rise again.
The NWSL also had a little luck. The Orlando Pride discovered that six players and four team staffers had tested positive for the virus before the team entered the league’s bubble, allowing the Pride to skip out on the tournament before it risked bringing the virus there. Players from FC Dallas and Nashville FC were already inside the MLS bubble when their positive results came back.
“If leagues can’t do a lot of tests and get their results back in a timely manner, I’m not sure how they can restart.”
Those results, at least, were discovered relatively early due to testing, which experts have identified as the most important aspect of any return-to-play effort. But the delays, and the other testing problems MLS and MLB teams have faced, highlight one of the most significant risks of returning to play as a virus that spreads rapidly hammers the country: An inability to get reliable results quickly could render their plans to conduct thousands of regular tests almost entirely pointless.
“If leagues can’t do a lot of tests and get their results back in a timely manner, I’m not sure how they can restart,” Binney said. “If they come back three or five or seven days later, they’re useless, because somebody’s already been spreading the virus for days if they have it.”
Containment With Huge Teams And Heavy Travel
Even if MLB does sort out those testing problems ― all the teams that temporarily halted training are back in camp now ― baseball’s return plan may be the most risky. Although outdoor games and limited personal contact give it an advantage over indoor sports like basketball and contact sports like football, it is holding games in its home market stadiums, meaning players will travel to different cities. MLB has adopted regional scheduling in an effort to reduce travel, placed limits on time spent in the clubhouse before and after games, and recommended that players don’t leave team hotels during road trips except to go to the ballpark.
But that requires dozens of players, coaches and game day staff from each of baseball’s 30 teams to follow those guidelines to the letter, a problem that will also exist inside league bubbles the NBA, NHL, WNBA and MLS have created. And even if everything goes perfectly for MLB and other leagues, they could face massive problems before their seasons end, given the rising number of cases and the unpredictability of the virus’ spread.
“The number one thing is to make sure that the virus is contained in all the cities where they’re playing,” said Laura Albert, a University of Wisconsin engineering professor who has researched emergency responses to public health crises. “Right now, it does not appear to be very well contained.”
If that’s the case, Albert said, MLB and other leagues can’t confidently project that it will still be safe to play by the end of their league seasons, even if they think it is now.
Deciding Whether To Shut Down
As is the case in many other workplaces, the risks of resuming sports now fall almost entirely on the laborers themselves. Games don’t require the presence of wealthy owners to take place, but the athletes and support staff are essential ― if not to the nation, at least to the leagues.
A hasty return forces them to decide between a paycheck and their health and that of their families, and despite the common perception that pro athletes are spoiled millionaires, a decent share of them can’t afford to give up a full season of earnings in careers that are already short.
There are even bigger practical and moral questions about resuming sports at the collegiate level, where athletes aren’t compensated and don’t have as much power to demand concessions from their programs or coaches, or to sit out if they feel unsafe. Major college football programs experienced a rash of infections after the NCAA allowed them to resume workouts in June. Thirty players from LSU and 28 from Clemson, the two teams that played in the national title game in January, were quarantined after testing positive or coming into contact with others who had.
On Thursday, the Ivy League announced that it would suspend all fall sports, including football, until the spring semester because of the virus, a move that has generated calls for other conferences to follow suit.
Pro leagues like MLB haven’t said what would need to happen in order for them to abort their plans to return to play or shut down seasons again. But they need to have those criteria in place, McGee said.
“They are dipping their toe in the water to see if they can relatively safely resume these activities,” she said. “But if we begin to see that we can’t resume these sports safely, then we should pull back on those plans. It’s really hard for me to see, if we can’t resume these activities safely, how we could continue to have them through the fall.”
League officials and major advertising partners have cast the return of sports as an important part of our national recovery from the pandemic. But even setting aside the cynicism and profit motivations that drive those arguments, they ignore a central fact: The United States isn’t at a point where it can talk about recovering from the virus, because it still hasn’t done enough to contain its spread.
There is an inherent risk that bringing back sports too soon will lead to infections that might not have occurred otherwise. And if things go wrong, sports could exacerbate the pandemic and contribute to shortages in testing and medical supplies, at least in certain states. The leagues that often tout the benefits they deliver to communities ― even when they’re nonexistent ― now have to reckon with the possibility that a premature return could further devastate them.
“They have a duty to create a safe environment for their players and staff. But even more than that, they have a duty to not present a threat to public health,” Binney said. “If they trace an outbreak in the community back to an outbreak on a Major League Baseball team ― oh, man, that would be a disaster.”
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