No, seriously, what will happen in restarted sports leagues when a player tests positive?

Amidst all the so very many articles on when sports leagues may or could or are thinking of restarting, I’ve been keeping an eye out for discussion of one important question: If a league starts play, with precautions for testing players and coaches and TV crews and hotel workers and whatever, what happens when one of those tests comes up positive? And finally, one league has provided an answer:

Fans will be barred from games until the [Korea Baseball Organization] is convinced the risk of infection has been minimized. If any member of a team tests positive for the coronavirus at any point of the season, the league will be shut down for at least three weeks.

If you’re serious about using testing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus through your league, this makes total sense: Any positive test needs to be followed by quarantine of everyone who has had contact with that person in recent days, which in the case of a sports league is going to mean pretty much everyone in the league. It’s going to make for an awfully tentative schedule — not to mention a dicey ESPN programming schedule — but in a nation where they’ve been averaging only seven new cases per day over the last week in a population of 52 million people, I guess they figure it’s a gamble worth taking.

But what if you can’t reasonably expect to test everyone and have everyone test negative? That’s what we’re seeing right now in the Bundesliga in Germany — 1,000 new cases per day out of a population of 83 million — and the way it’s being managed is very different:

Two days before German government officials will announce whether the country’s top two professional soccer leagues may resume play amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Bundesliga officials confirmed Monday that they had encountered 10 positive tests in their attempt to finish the season.

In all, the governing DFL announced Monday, 1,724 players, coaches, team physicians and other staff members have been tested. At least four of the positive tests came from players — three from Cologne and one “inconclusive result” from second-division Stuttgart on a player who has been quarantined for 14 days — and all 10 who tested positive are not believed to be displaying any symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to the New York Times.

That was yesterday. Today:

The German Bundesliga season can resume this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed.

So … what’s the point of all that testing, if not to quarantine those who’ve been in close contact with anyone who tests positive? The Bundesliga has said it will be testing everyone twice a week, but that’s still plenty of time for a player or staffer to catch and spread Covid-19 in between tests, if they’re not quarantined.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that a perfect quarantine isn’t necessary: You really only need to keep R0 (the average number of that each infected person in turn infects) below 1, and any new outbreak will fizzle out. The Bundesliga is adding a ton of other social distancing rules, from requiring that players shower and dress separately to keeping starting lineups to be kept separate from substitutes for meals and warmups, so maybe that will be enough to keep transmission rates low — maybe. You’ll have some individuals getting infected, almost surely, but if it’s only a few, on a societal level it won’t cause devastating effects. (Of course, if you’re a player who comes down with Covid and risks spreading it to your family members as a result, you may not find it quiet so reassuring that you’re statistically insignificant.)

And if R0 can’t be kept low enough to stop one Bundesliga player or staffer from turning into a superspreader? No one seems to have thought about that, or maybe no one can bear to think about it out loud. German soccer officials have previously warned that 13 teams could be on the brink of insolvency if the season doesn’t resume, so apparently not shutting down until there’s an actual out-of-control outbreak is the gamble they’re willing to take.

And for sports leagues in nations like the U.S. (27,000 new cases per day in a population of 328 million), clearly even thinking about what to do in case of a positive test result is unthinkable, because no one is mentioning it aloud. In fact, sports leagues (and the sports journalists who uncritically reprint their pronouncements) aren’t mentioning lots of things aloud right now, as witness this article from CBS Miami on contingency plans for a Miami Dolphins restart:

Masks would be required. Fans would order concessions from their seats to be picked up later rather than waiting on line.

Okay, so everyone would wear masks, and to avoid close contact with fellow fans they would stay out of concession lines and instead pick up their food one at a time, and then go back to their seats and eat it … through their masks … um, CBS Miami, I have some followup questions? Hello?


27 comments on “No, seriously, what will happen in restarted sports leagues when a player tests positive?

  1. I understand the fear in Germany that teams will go bankrupt, but here is reality: Businesses and industries do go bankrupt. Lord and Taylor is the latest example. People who worked at that company for years, could be losing their pensions and that is even more sad then millionaires losing their investment. I can only imagine the lawsuits that will happen if the games start and people die. It will not be pretty.

    • I am not sure there are actually going to be that many lawsuits. And if your choices are go out of business or lawsuits, then who cares about the lawsuits.

      Certainly this is all dicey stuff, that needs to be handled carefully. But that that will always be the case. And we aren’t going to sit around forever waiting to reopen things until we can be sure no one will die or have grounds for a lawsuit. You have to triangulate a bit.

      The actual people at risk of serious health outcomes mostly doesn’t include players. So having an outbreak on a team isn’t some huge catastrophe if they aren’t also visiting their grandparents and so on. Sooner or later a decent portion of the population is going to get it, so as long as you can keep the hospital stress under a critical level, weather some soccer player gets it in SEP or DEC doesn’t seem that important.

      I know I had a health emergency last week in Minnesota, and despite us being still at or around our peak, exactly 2 of 30 emergency room beds were being used when I was there.

      Obviously if we had done nothing it would have been a lot worse. But that standard cannot be “no one can die”. Everyone dies. And the vast majority of the people dying from this in places where it is under control are people who were going to be dying soon anyway.

  2. A Bundesliga II (2.BL) team, the Aue Ore Mountains, has been isolated after they had a lot of positives (staff) in the second round of testing (this is in addition to the positives in the first round where there only individual quarantines after testing positive).

    Also part of the German government “go ahead” plan is to isolate every team for two weeks before they restart play on May 25th. There are measures being taken–half measures to be sure but “measures”– I tell you!

    • Isolate where? Hotels? Will the hotel staff also be isolated?

      Not saying all of that is strictly necessary, necessarily. But if you want a two-week quarantine to be 100% effective, it has to be a 100% quarantine.

  3. NASCAR is going to be the canary in the coal mine in North America. Four races in two weeks, with all those crews/staff. It’s going to be a complete disaster.

    • Unless they’re racing walkers in a nursing home, I wouldn’t worry about it.

      • Or, you know, any of the drivers/crew have preexisting conditions, which describes about half of America. Or has any relatives with the same. Or any friends or grocery cashiers or Uber drivers with relatives — do we really even still need to be having this conversation?

  4. I doubt they’ll shutdown, and just press ahead on the basis that most all of the players and coaches will be fine even if they get the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it won’t go into full blown COVID-19. They’re all losing too much money by being shut down, and most of the owners didn’t get involved to lose money.

    I wish I wasn’t so pessimistic, but here we are.

    • I do wonder whether the players and their families will be okay continuing on a “don’t worry, most of us won’t die” basis.

      • They won’t like it one bit and has said so, but I doubt they’ll have a choice in the matter. Not sure what mechanisms they have to enforce compliance, but they’ll come up with something. I think the NBA closing due to Rudy Gobert positive test and player pushback was an anomaly that won’t be repeated.

        Yes, I’m overly pessimistic here, but that seems to be right more often than not with the current situation.

      • I mean what is the likely death rate among soccer players? 1 in 5000, 1 in 5000? Less? At least in the State I am paying attention to (my own)) the deaths are HUGELY concentrated among the very very old. Sure there are a few random other people, but it is quite rare.

        In China the death rate for soccer playing age and health type people was under 1 in 1000. In any case I doubt most of the players are super concerned about themselves getting sick. Maybe their older relatives.

        • One or two professional footballers tend to drop dead every couple of years due to previously undetected heart anomalies (the kind that only appear when the heart is under the kind of severe stress the professional game puts it under).

          That is not in any way contagious so it isn’t really a comparable. But it does show that “zero” deaths has never been the standard in any sport.

          See NFL and traumatic brain injury or NFL and catastrophic spinal cord injuries. See MotoGP, aerobatic flying, free diving, see any number of other sports.

          If the games go ahead the players will play. The only thing I wonder about is whether the owners will seek (and be given) some sort of blanket immunity from prosecution should anyone involved in any of these games become ill and die as a direct result of the greed (of all parties, of course).

          I think we can count on the players being required to sign a waiver of all liability. But what about families, officials, hotel and arena workers etc?

    • In Germany, there are no “owners” because teams are member associations owned by their members (fans), though in some cases teams can have their soccer side run as a limited partnership with investors (some of who try to act like owners).

      So no Jerry Jones types…yet. I suspect the need for capital will lead to new calls to change things.

      • It depends on the club. Most are community run, but RB Leipzig has taken the single owner to the extreme where the club is basically run by Red Bull.

        • That is a weird one, though technically still a MA (very few members, all from RB).

          There’s also a potential exception if you blow a lot of money over time, which is what the Chairman of Hannover is trying.

          • RBL meets the requirements in letter, but completely ignores them in spirit. The Bundesliga hasn’t come up a good way to stop them that doesn’t blow everything all to hell.

  5. Once upon a time, when spectators were free to attend professional baseball games, millions did, even though there was the possibility they could get injured by thrown or batted balls. or broken bats or parts. Despite the disclaimer on every ticket that protected the teams from liability, fans weighed this “assumption of risk” and showed up anyway. So now, let’s open up sports and let the people decide for themselves how they want to live their lives. Everyone can assess their own risks and act accordingly, no nanny state required. Athletes, too. Because……America.

    • That analogy would work better if someone else getting hit by a foul ball at the game could injure me sitting at home.

    • Until someone got really injured and the insurance company basically made them extend the netting to at least the dugouts and then were told the MLB no, you need to foul pole to foul pole which was the standard starting this year.

      You can write what ever you want on the ticket, but it doesn’t make it enforceable. And if you lose in the court of public opinion your screwed anyway, regardless of any liability waiver.

    • The analogy would also work better if one accounts for the fact that I am an asymptomatic carrier, believe I am no risk to others and “act accordingly” by showing up to the ballpark to enjoy the game.

      That leads to potentially multiple people getting hit by a single invisible baseball (that was never actually hit) which then leads to multiple people not at the game also getting injured.

      Seems like we’ve seen this before.

      Oh, yes, Bergamo, Italy.

      https://sports.yahoo.com/italian-mayor-health-officials-link-champions-league-game-to-coronavirus-outbreak-a-biological-bomb-224218347.html

  6. The restrictions placed on the South Korean baseball players seem utterly unreasonable to me. No hugging and no spitting.

    That’s just not baseball… next they’ll be telling them they can’t manually adjust their genitals between pitches…

    • When soccer returns officials are being asked to give yellow cards for spitting. I do not think there will be any giant pile goal celebrations either (although I am not sure if they would get a yellow).

  7. Early returns from the ‘start up’ plans aren’t going well (unsurprisingly) in European football. Several players who thought they were healthy have tested positive (and no, we get no information on what constitutes a positive test in this context. Is it having symptoms? An actual virus dna test? Who knows…) when reporting for physicals or other administrative functions prior to resuming training.

    If they really intend to stick to the SK like safety rules (one positive test and everything stops for 3 weeks), it seems unlikely this will get very far.

    So, will they? Or will we learn that there have been a rash of ‘false positives’ in the sporting world?

  8. I think the continued fight in the Third Bundesliga is the most revealing thing about the politics of re-opening I have seen. Two of the teams that have opposed restarting the 3.BL are in position to be relegated and many people have been arguing that there objections are just about getting a “do over” (like in the note above for EPL). But what is politically fascinating is that those two potentially relegated teams are also in German states that forbid them to practice (Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt–the one California and Maryland cribbed flag ideas from). The teams are arguing that it is unfair to restart because they cannot practice but it is also true that political jurisdictions that would have prevented 1.BL and 2.BL teams from practicing have been overcome (likely with team political pressure to overturn them). So now it is being argued that those teams should have been trying to overturn or gain exemptions to restrictions but haven’t because of their low position.

    How this relates to how/what/when decisions to re-open in US states is up to you to ponder.

    Side note: My state’s recent executive order actually reads that “shooting hoops” (with scare quotes) is allowed but “full contact basketball” is discouraged. That got me thinking. Is there a precedent establishing the legal definition of “shooting hoops”? Is Basketball Jones v. State going to the US Supreme Court?

    • I suggested to my son that we invent pandemic soccer, where any player who goes within six feet of another gets a card. Clearly you would need to make some adjustments, maybe play 8v8 or 6v6 — otherwise, as he pointed out, the defense could just form a picket fence at the midline and keep anyone from ever going past it — but it would certainly make for some interesting emergent strategy.

  9. Dynamic Dresden (2.BL) is in full team quarantine (at their respective homes not together). They cannot practice for two weeks and will miss the restart. Neil has been right the whole time.