On Friday I reported how plans to restart American pro sports leagues were hitting snags in the form of rising Covid caseloads in major sports states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and since then things have gotten oh so much worse:
- At least 40 MLB players and staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past week, which is even more impressive when you consider that most players haven’t even shown up for “spring training” yet. And a whole bunch of NFL players have tested positive as well.
- MLB shut down all of its training camps in Arizona and Florida, where Covid case numbers continue to do alarming things (and no, it’s not just more testing — click on “test positivity” in the charts here):
- The baseball players union has put off for several days holding a vote on the owners’ latest proposal for restarting the season, amid uncertainty about whether a restart makes any damn sense now.
- As for the NBA, which is scheduled to restart in July with all of its teams playing in the state that health experts are warning could be the “next large epicenter” of the virus, there’s been no official word on rethinking those plans, but league commissioner Adam Silver reportedly held a “resolute but somber” conference call with owners last week.
Now, there’s no reason you can’t hold a sports season even with a few players testing positive — it’s what soccer leagues in Europe are doing, figuring that if you keep testing and quarantining anyone who turns out to be infectious, the rest of the league can continue more or less as normal. But Europe has way, way less virus than much of the US right now: Even the United Kingdom has a daily new cases per capita figure that’s barely 5% of that in Arizona, so fewer Premier League players are likely to be getting infected when they go to a local restaurant or grocery store (“community spread,” in the epidemiology lingo), meaning there’s less risk of a surge of cases that would require an entire team to be sequestered for two weeks.
This is the whole reason MLB was considering its “bubble plan,” wherein all the teams and game officials and TV crews and hotel workers and everyone else necessary to support them would be walled off in a single location, something that it soon became clear would be entirely unworkable. The NBA is looking to do its own version of a bubble, but as that includes things like being allowed to leave the “campus” for excused absences without having to quarantine on your return, it’s clear that this is more a “let’s figure out something workable and cross our fingers” plan than something that’s actually airtight from a public health standpoint — if that wasn’t already clear from the fact that the NBA is locating its bubble in Orlando and not New Zealand.
There is also always the possibility of just rolling the dice and figuring if some players get infected, so be it — they’re relatively young and healthy, so most of them probably won’t get very sick. But that can’t be said for coaches, or game officials, or players with preexisting risk factors (have we discussed here how half of the US adult population has high blood pressure?), or family members who are going to continue to be in contact with players, whether they’re in a bubble or not? Even setting aside whether sports leagues want to be responsible for exacerbating the spread of a deadly disease in the general population, it would be very bad if they ended up telling Dusty Baker he has to decide between risking his life to show up for work and staying at home watching cowboy movies. (Not that plenty of other workers aren’t being asked to do the same thing, but that’s not great either.)
As it looks increasingly like the US is headed toward a patchwork of outbreak scenarios, with some regions seeing low caseloads while others face second waves or even first waves that never ended, it’s probably impossible to have any kind of sports that involves travel and maintain any kind of safety from infection for those involved. That leaves several unpalatable options: 1) gather all the players in one spot with low infection rates and try to play a quick season before they go stir-crazy and miss their families; 2) damn the virus and go full speed ahead, and hope you still have enough players to finish out the season after they start getting quarantined or head for the hills to avoid getting infected; 3) cancel everything and wait for a vaccine — or at least for infections to get down to a low enough boil that contact tracing can keep them under control, something that isn’t getting off to a great start what with states reopening even while caseloads are still high.
It would arguably make more sense, even just in terms of self-interest, for sports team owners to take the lead by saying, “We’re not restarting nothing until the virus is under control,” in hopes of encouraging local leaders to pursue a plan where in a couple of months we might be in a place — like Spain and Germany and even the UK are in now — where resuming sports might be a reasonable gamble instead of a desperate dice roll. But then, long-term thinking is never what sports team owners were known for; the botched restart plans are just another reminder that rich people may know how to throw their money and power around, but that doesn’t mean they’re always going to be smart about it.