Will sports return this year? This has become a complicated question. In the midst of a global pandemic, as the United States’ curve has not flattened but increased, more questions arise. Could a season even be played without ending in mass infections? What risks are acceptable?
The road to a return is looking bumpier as scenarios both inside and outside of sports worsen. Take a look at Florida. Cases are spiking in large numbers, causing concern over plans to have the NBA and MLS teams isolated in Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. It doesn’t help that positive test results are rising within sports as well, even before official workouts begin.
Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies, Derek Jones Jr. of the Miami Heat, Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings, and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets all have had positive tests. Avery Bradley of the Lakers passes on the restart due to family medical concerns. Also, Novak Djokovic, Djokovic’s wife, and three other players tested positive after an exhibition tennis tournament in Croatia.
Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson withdrew from this week’s PGA Tour event in Cromwell, Conn., after Koepka’s caddie and one of Simpson’s family members tested positive. The outbreaks continue in college football, where Houston, Kansas City, and Boise State have stopped summer workouts. LSU and Clemson, as well as others, have seen large numbers of positive tests among players as they returned for workouts.
Will other players will decline to play? How many will contract the virus before play begins? What happens when players get sick and have to quarantine mid-season? There’s a lot of TV money on the line right now, making the temptation to continue high. But how far is too far? Is there a number or percentage beyond which the NBA, or NHL or MLS or MLB or PGA or NCAA or whoever, can’t go?
“I think that’s literally the multimillion-dollar question going on right now,” said Dr. Rand McClain, a Santa Monica based physician who specializes in regenerative therapy and has some athletes as clients.
“It’s going to come down to, if you think about it, more finances than anything else. At what point does a season get ruined, so to speak, because the first-string linemen all got infected? And so this team over here decides, ‘OK, well, we’re gonna put in the second team and play the games anyway.’ This team over here says, ‘No, we’re gonna call the next two games, period, because some of our guys got infected so we’re doing a two-week lockdown.’
”Is there any way to say that there’s 100 percent certainty? There’s not.
Dr. Jeanne Doperak
“I really think that’s the biggest unknown and one of the biggest factors left to be decided at this point, because it’s going to affect every level – high school, college and pro. … The money received – I hate to say it, but it is definitely a part of the decision-making process going on here. It’s not just about making fans happy. It’s about keeping the programs going.”
The first to return to games is the National Women’s Soccer League and will continue the Challenge Cup tournament in Utah. But they’ll continue with eight teams instead of nine, as the Orlando Pride has pulled out due to six players and four staffers testing positive.
Teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have talked about quarantining third-string players to prepare for starters like Tom Brady getting sick. Practice squads in the NFL are becoming quarantine squads.
Across the board, similar measures are being taken. There will be testing and screening to begin. Contact tracing will be used as necessary throughout the process, and play will be phased in gradually. The first phase of training begins in small groups followed by full team workouts followed eventually by competition. Throughout all of this is adherence to social distancing and mask use and other restrictions involving locker and training rooms, all the way down to such details as no high fives or, in baseball, no chewing and spitting sunflower seeds.
But even with all of this, there’s a risk involved as most of the sports in question are contact sports. So how do you continue to lessen the risk from the start?
“Our phase one is a 14-day social isolation phase,” said Dr. Jeanne Doperak of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who assists Pitt’s athletic program and also the Pittsburgh Steelers, on a recent episode of the Shaping Opinion podcast. “My infectious disease colleagues tell me that the safest way to assure someone does not have the virus is to take them to a cabin in the woods, don’t let them leave for 14 days, and after 14 days if they don’t get sick you’re good.
“So we’re trying to create our own version of Cabin in the Woods. Now, does that come with some hiccups? Perhaps when you’re dealing with a bunch of college students, it does.”
It seems obvious— the fewer risks taken, the faster sports can return to normal. But as we see outside of sports as well, people aren’t accepting that idea.
“Is there any way to say that there’s 100 percent certainty? There’s not,” Doperak said. ” … We’re going to have to be somewhat accepting that there is some risk there, and do our very best to minimize the risk, but to understand that there is risk.”
“I’m an eternal optimist, but I think we’re going to pull it off,” McClain said. “If we can execute, then we can do it. If we don’t execute, if we get sloppy, I think we’re going to be sorry.”
Original article by Jim Alexander of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.