Can U.S. sports leagues return to play safely?
When cases of COVID-19 started leveling off, many U.S. states started to reopen their economies, particularly in Republican dominated states. Prior to the reopening, President Donald Trump urged governors to reopen their states, since he deemed the stay at home orders were hurting the economy and thus his reputation and election chances, and most Republican governors obliged. But that hastiness to reopen may have compromised lives. Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona, Utah and various other states have seen a huge spike in new COVID cases and most health experts put the blame squarely on the decision by governors to allow large gatherings without the requirements of safe distancing and mask wearing. As a result, swimming pools and overcrowded beaches in Galveston and Miami where people congregated without facial protection were front and center on the news. Most interviewed on the news about not wearing masks said that they didn't believe coronavirus was a real threat and even if they did get the virus, they likely would survive since they were young and healthy. What the young people interviewed failed to acknowledge, however, is that thier generation is indeed getting sick and even if they themselves are asymptomatic, they could pass it on to less healthy or older family members, colleagues or friends.
Nevertheless, President Trump has said that he doesn't believe the reports and insisted that the increased numbers of positive cases are directly related to increased testing. And remarkably, Trump even hinted that the CDC should stop testing because without testing the number of cases would then become zero. But even the biggest skeptics to COVID-19 would agree that severe cases requiring stays in the ICU and even deaths have nothing to do with increased testing and unfortunately hospitalizations in many states, including Florida and Texas are skyrocketing. If health analysts, including Dr. Fauci, are correct, then by October the United States could have close to four million positive cases and over 210,000 deaths from COVID-19.
Despite the spike in cases and community spread it seems that pro sports leagues are moving forward with plans to resume their seasons, most likely without fans in attendance. The White House even hinted that if things get worse or a bigger wave hits, the stay at home orders are over and if there is a new outbreak, they’ll just ride it out and let the chips fall where they may. Fortunately for Americans the decision to stay open or not wrests with governors and not the President.
Plans to Restart
The NBA announced plans to start a 22 game playoff beginning on July 31st, using Disney World as a hub city; the NHL announced plans for a 24 team playoff starting sometime in July, with training camps beginning on July 10th with at least two hub cities, most likely in Las Vegas and one Canadian city; and Major League Soccer plans to restart on July 8th with Orlando again as a hub city. Major League baseball is still fighting over contracts so no begin date or details have been discussed although reports suggest it will also be using two or 3 hub cities, likely in Arizona, Florida and/or Texas if the season does begin. And as for the NFL, their commissioner stated that the league is planning to begin its season on time in all the usual cities in front of fans, hoping the coronavirus will magically disappear or no one will notice. But even if games are forced to be played without fans, the TV contracts are so large, the league can still be successful with empty stadiums. The NCAA has made no concrete plans, although it has no desire to make up March Madness and has indicated that fall tournaments will not take place.
The problem that the leagues are facing right now is that players have tested positive in all leagues and there is a good chance there could be new outbreaks. Most of the NBA's positive cases happened in March, but playing in Florida there is a good chance that someone will get infected and if that happens, spread to other players is almost certain. In the NFL, Ezekiel Elliot tested positive just recently and reports are that many Dallas players have also tested positive. And the state of Texas is seeing thousands of new positive tests every day. While the league has admitted to four positive cases most analysts say they believe the number of positive NFL players is far higher. The NHL has reported 10 positive cases to date, mostly from March, although again experts believe there are some players who are positive, but asymptomatic. Roman Polak, a player from the Dallas Stars has said he has no plans to return to the Dallas Stars to play for the team for fear of catching COVID-19. He said he needed to think of his health and family, plus the shortened training camp also increases the chance of injury. Polak instead signed a contract for next season with a Czech hockey team and said he is staying put even if the NHL resumes this season and will gladly give up the rest of his contract. And in the NBA, Enes Kanter just told NBC Sports that he knows "so many players" who will not play without greater precautions and Kyrie Irving not only said he won’t play, but is encouraging a boycott and possibly starting up a different league to compete with the NBA. Irving said he was worried about coronavirus, but also didn’t want to take the focus away from the racial protests taking place in the United States today.
The question that many are asking now are twofold. First, why are the leagues determined to play despite the risks? And secondly why is it ok for NASCAR and golf to resume but other sports are put under the microscope? I spoke to a sportswriter who asked to remain nameless, since he is not freelancer, and he said he can easily answer both questions:
The answer to the first question as to why leagues want to restart is easy. It is about money and keeping relevant. TV revenue for Major League baseball is quite small and the season hasn't begun, so the owners are in no rush to start up, but the NBA and NHL are going right into the playoffs and that is where teams make their money. TV contracts are lucrative both in the national and local markets for both leagues and as you know players do not get a separate salary for playing in the playoffs. Their income is paid out from July to June and they get a bonus for playoff appearances, but it is far smaller than regular salaries. The glory for the majority of players is just playing for their cities in the playoffs and if they are lucky winning the championship and receiving a name on a trophy and a championship ring. Losing fan revenue will hurt revenues, of course, but the TV deals and sponsorships will more than make up for the loss of fans.
As for the second question, I think it is ludicrous to try and equate individual sports with team sports. Both motor sports and golf take place outdoors where the virus does not transmit well, and if a driver is in his own car he cannot transmit or get contaminated with the coronavirus. Pit crews generally self-distance until they are required, and even then wear masks and gloves, and in 13 seconds running around a car to change tires or put gas in the car the risk of catching the disease is very low. And the same holds true for golfers, and even tennis players. Those sports all take place outside and players do not get too close to each other. To be honest, I never understood why the individual outside sports including horse racing shut down in the first place. Of course, in March COVID-19 was all brand new, so no one knew how exactly the disease spread or what precautions were necessary. But now we do. Team sports, especially basketball and hockey are played indoors, and players get very close to each other with bumping, checking and guarding. The amount of perspiration, spitting and other releases of water molecules the players release is significant, so it is almost impossible to prevent spread if a player is positive. At least hockey players have helmets and pads, but NBA players have no real protection. So the leagues can do their temperature checks, nasal swabs or whatever other things they believe will catch the virus, but if one NBA or NHL player gets the virus, it is almost certain that the majority of players on the court or ice will eventually get it too.
Hockey in Canada
Some other NHL analysts have acknowledged that the NHL is considering mandating face shields for all players, coaches and referees, which they believe will help stop the spread of the disease. They also noted the NHL is considering a Canadian city like Toronto or Vancouver as a hub city, which they said would help as well, since the prevalence of COVID-19 in Canada is far smaller than in the United States. While Toronto, Ottawa and other Ontario provinces have had small outbreaks, mostly at long term care homes, the community spread has not been too bad. New coronavirus cases have been less than 200 per day for almost a week now in Ontario, which has a population of 14 million people and British Columbia which has a population of five million people has seen less than 50 new cases for months. Other than an early outbreak the province has only seen 2,700 total cases and 168 deaths and there has not been a new death for a while. And unlike Florida or Texas where the hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, there are currently only 13 people in hospital with COVID-19 in the province of British Columbia and only four are in intensive care. And British Columbia is going into Stage 3 of reopening, which means that most businesses can operate as usual. Ontario is more restrictive, but is also opening businesses and public places noting that the risk of spread now in the province is very low. The biggest downfall to using a Canadian city as a hub is that the U.S.-Canada border is closed which means that players currently not in Canada will have to get permission to play from the Canadian government and will have to go into a 14-day self-isolation once they arrive. That said, there are worse things than hunkering down for a couple of weeks in a 5-star hotel.
So the pro team sports leagues are preparing to reopen regardless of the risks and the only questions are whether all players will be on board and also what precautions the league is willing to enact to ensure players are safe. The league also has to decide what to do if a player does indeed test positive after taking part in a game. If the leagues can reopen safely then it will be a boon to player psyches, owners pocketbooks, sportsbooks, daily fantasy sports sites and also President Trump, who recently asked league commissioners to restart because he was bored watching replays of old games.
We all need sports, so let's hope that all of the major sports can safely restart.