As various sports start their return, they all need to figure out what that looks like during a pandemic. Each sport has chosen a slightly different path, which gives us a look into what works and what doesn’t. Whether it’s the NBA playing in a Disney World bubble, the NHL choosing hub cities, the MLB limiting travel, or golf returning with no fans, they’ve all got one thing in common— inevitable positive tests.
In golf, Brooks Koepka and Graeme McDowell withdrew as their caddies tested positive, while Nick Watney and Cameron Champ test positive themselves. In tennis, Novak Djokovic, his wife, and Grigor Dimitrov join the positives. Joining them is Nikola Jokic from the NBA. Add to the list dozens of LSU football players as well as other teams in the college sphere.
Spring training activities in Florida and Arizona were canceled by Major League Baseball for cleaning after five Phillies players tested positive. As Florida’s normal cases peak to a record high, the Tampa Bay Lightning deal with their own positives between three players and other staff members. They decided to shut down their Phase 2 training program. Keeping in the state, the Orlando Pride team pulls out of the National Women’s Soccer League tournament due to players testing positive for COVID-19.
Contact tracing for the team showed some players visiting the same bar. This communicates how tough it will be to govern and restrict players, as personal lives will undoubtedly have an effect on any plan. So while there’s still hope surrounding a return, there are huge issues that need to be addressed in the midst of the virus.
As Dr. Rand McClain, the chief medical officer of LCR Health who treats many professional athletes, summed up: “It’s not possible to reduce the risk to zero. It always comes down to risk versus reward, or as some would say, a risk/tolerance equation. There is no perfect answer.”
It seems that every team returning is being open about their increased safety measures. Boston College released its Monday. While the NHL is planning on returning, they have yet to solidify plans for Phase 3 and 4. The NBA has detailed plans on their return, which include a Disney World Bubble, but with the current state of Florida, those plans may be up in the air.
Baseball’s postgame showers were made optional. The NFL, hopeful to return to training camps in August, plan to draw up tiers of personnel and restrictions on interacting between groups. But as the ESPN report that provided those details warned, “There already have been heated discussions within teams as to who ends up in which tier.”
Even with plans in place, everything is up in the air. Players may decide it’s not worth the risk, like the Laker’s Avery Bradley who is opting out of playing due to the risk it brings his family. For those who do return, performance may be affected by anxiety or increased risk of injury.
“I would suspect they’re feeling the range of emotions from depression to anxiety, fear, absolutely,” said Dr. Lani Lawrence, certified mental performance consultant and executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, in a phone interview.
“On one level with COVID-19, which is not just impacting their health, but family members they might be staying with, God forbid elderly family members at risk, to know you could potentially be a contagion, not be symptomatic and still pass the virus.
“That fear of either getting COVID or passing it along to someone you love, and I also think there is a fear of injury, that if you return to play, not playing at the level you were before. Even though your body is rested, your mind still thinks you’re at a certain level and you may try to do something your body is not ready to do. That could impact your career, forget about a season.”
In their weekly podcast, Patriots players Devin and Jason McCourty spoke about these types of concerns.
“I think everybody’s nervous, because the norm is that we just go to work — we put in a lot of work, we bond together, we lift, we’re in close quarters,” said Devin. “It feels like that’s all being taken away from us, so I don’t know how to react. I don’t know what’s it’s going to be.”
Jason added that the high school field he was using in Nashville to prepare ended up being the same used by 49ers players who later tested positive.
“It’s kind of scary because something like that, I think it was probably just offense, so they probably had maybe 10 guys out there,” he said. “When you think about the future, if it’s hard for 10 guys just to get together to do little passing drills or anything of that nature, to think about somewhere between 53 and 90 guys in a training camp, it’s going to be insane. So I don’t know how that’s going to turn out.”
There’s increased worry as the number of cases rise, especially in younger people. But McClain shares that even with the worry, professional athletes in his care have universally shown strong intent to play again. And based on the peak physical condition an athlete needs to be in, a positive isn’t likely to have dire consequences.
“The epidemiology and odds makes it scary; you don’t have your arms around it,” said McClain. “You read about the case of a young, healthy man with a terrible outcome and think ‘that could be me.’ That’s scary. The odds are against it, but that’s the rub. There are exceptions.
“For what it’s worth — and I have very little insider information — but from the outside two months ago, I would have said unequivocally no way to the NBA or any contact sport this season. There was no data, the transmission rate and mortality rate was crazy scary.
“As of today, I would say the issue is more outside the realm of the medical and more political or financial.”
Original article by Tara Sullivan of the Boston Globe.