May 8, 2020

Weekly line: Will America have professional sports this year? The answer is complicated.

Daily Briefing

    My family is a sports family. During the fall, our dinner conversations mostly consist of fantasy football stats and our schedule revolves around NFL game times. Throughout the winter and spring, we spend our nights excitedly watching hockey pucks coast across NHL ice rinks. And while I'm not typically a superstitious person, I'll readily apprise anyone of my theories on why, yes, the Mets and Knicks are cursed and it's just not fair.

    So like many families across America, although we understand and support the need for social distancing and other efforts to mitigate the country's Covid-19 epidemic, we've also been anxiously wondering: Will America's professional sports return this year?

    Answering that question has proved complicated. And even if professional sports resume in America this year, they'll likely look a lot different than they did before the new coronavirus spread throughout the country. Here's what you need to know.

    Why it's not clear whether professional sports can resume in America in 2020

    When America's Covid-19 epidemic began spiking in March, many major professional sports leagues—including the MLB, the NBA/WNBA, the NFL, the NHL, MLS, and others—announced they were suspending their current seasons, delaying their upcoming seasons, closing down player and practice facilities, and more.

    Since then, policymakers, owners of professional sports teams, professional athletes, and the like have been trying to develop plans that would allow their operations to safely resume but, so far, there's been little progress. CNN's Leah Asmelash reports that, as of April 30:

    • The start of the MLB's 2020 season remains delayed indefinitely, though officials are exploring the possibility of having teams "pla[y] the entire season in just one or a few locations" and without fans;
    • The NBA hasn't yet made any announcements about resuming its current season, though the association may begin reopening team practice facilities in some states on Friday, and the WNBA hasn't announced a new start date for its upcoming season, which had been scheduled to begin May 15;
    • The NHL hasn't yet announced when it plans to resume its current season, though there have been rumors that play could be delayed until December; and
    • MLS EVP of Communications Dan Courtemanche has said the league is "hopeful that we can have players begin individual workouts soon, but we do not have any set dates for a return." He added, "We will only do so when the health and safety of players, coaches, and staff is assured."

    Meanwhile, the NFL is still planning to kick off its 2020 season as scheduled in September, though league and team facilities are currently closed. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday issued a memo to all 32 teams in the league outlining protocols teams should follow to gradually reopen their facilities and establishing a May 15 deadline for teams to have those protocols in place.

    One outlier is NASCAR, which is set to resume its current season on May 17 with new safety protocols in place for teams, racers, and other workers—but without any fans in attendance. While the season officially kicked off with Daytona 500 in February, NASCAR in March suspended the season and, instead, has had drivers take part in virtual races. 

    Public health experts have said the biggest hurdle to restarting professional sports in America is ensuring that all involved—athletes, staff, and fans—are safe, and that the events don't spark a surge in new coronavirus infections. But that's a task much easier said than done in the face of an epidemic that's expected to continue to see flare ups and resurgences across the United States, as scientists continue to work to find an effective vaccine against the new coronavirus or treatment for Covid-19.

    Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, last week told the New York Times that it may be difficult for most professional sports to resume in America at all this year.

    "Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything," Fauci said. "If you can't guarantee safety, then unfortunately you're going to have to bite the bullet and say, 'We may have to go without this sport for this season.'"

    What needs to happen for sports to come back?

    Public health experts have pointed to some key initiatives that professional sports organizations would need to put in place to safely restart their operations.

    Widespread testing

    One of those initiatives is widespread testing for the new coronavirus—though implementing such an effort comes with complications.

    For instance, testing for the new coronavirus has fallen short in the United States, with many Americans not able to access tests to determine whether they've been infected. As such, there may be "qualms" about "the use of scarce testing resources on otherwise healthy, millionaire athletes," the Los Angeles Times' David Wharton writes.

    Mike Bass, a spokesperson for the NBA, told the Associated Press' Tim Reynolds, "We would have to ensure that testing is widely available and front-line health care workers have access before we begin talking about regular testing in the context of professional sports."

    Even if such tests are widely available, the process of implementing mass testing for America's professional sports leagues would be "complex," Wharton notes. Further, Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven, told Wharton, "[P]rofessional athletes who test negative for Covid-19 with regular testing could be false positives and could get sick."

    Isolating players and staff

    Assuming professional sports leagues could implement mass testing for players and staff, public health experts say sports teams also would need to implement and enforce social distancing and isolation measures to ensure players and staff remain coronavirus-free—another task that could prove difficult.

    Wharton writes, "A league could gather all of its players, coaches, and staff, testing everyone to ensure a virus-free community. Teams could live in designated hotels or dormitories, remaining isolated from the public, venturing outside only to practice and compete in sequestered ballparks." He notes, "In theory, the strategy could work if players adhered to extreme restrictions," but "[i]n reality, health experts say, it represents a high-stakes gamble."

    Mike Trout, a centerfielder for the MLB's Los Angeles Angels, during an interview on NBC Sports Network, raised concerns about such measures. "What are you going to do with family members?" he asked. "My wife is pregnant, what am I going to do when she goes into labor? Am I going to have to quarantine for two weeks after I come back? Because obviously I can't miss that birth of our first child. So, there's a lot of red flags, there's a lot of questions," Trout said.

    Further, Larry Chang, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Wharton that if a player exhibits symptoms of Covid-19, even if he or she tests negative for the new coronavirus, "Technically … all those people who played in the … game should be quarantined for 14 days."

    McGee told Wharton, "The potential of illness or even death among elite athletes is something that professional sports leagues should not risk."

    A vaccine, treatment, and low rates of new infections

    Ultimately, public health experts say a vaccine against the new coronavirus and/or an effective treatment for Covid-19 are needed for professional sports to safely resume in America, or the country needs to get to a place where the rate of new coronavirus infections is low.

    "What we need to do is get it, as a country and as individual locations, under control. That sometimes takes longer than you would like, and if we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal, we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole we were in a few weeks ago," Fauci told the Times. He added, "Unless we completely knock this out with a vaccine—which I hope we will, but that's not going to be for a while—I think you're going to see some form of a tension to the possibility of transmissibility."

    What professional sports in America could look like when they do resume

    Even when professional sports do resume in America, they're not likely to look the same as they did pre-Covid-19, at least in the near term.

    Experts say it's likely that when professional sporting events do return, fans likely won't be able to attend the events in person at the outset—and perhaps not until 2021, the New York Times reports.

    And even once fans are allowed to begin attending professional sporting events again, there likely will be social distancing requirements and limits on how many fans can attend at once—at least until there is an adequate vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 available.

    William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University and an expert in preventive medicine and infectious diseases, told the New York Times's Andrew Keh, "Degrees of social distancing are going to have to be part of our norm until that time. … We may whittle them down, make modifications and compromises, but social distancing will have to remain."

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