With college football season on the brink, what can we learn from sports leagues that have restarted play?

College football’s Mountain West conference canceled its fall season yesterday, with the possibility of holding it next spring instead, and the “Power Five” conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern) are reportedly set to meet today to discuss doing the same. This has led to a flurry of reactions from across the sports and political world as to whether it’s a good idea to play contact sports during a raging pandemic (players: yes, if there are safety protocols; doctors: maybe no if you don’t want players to risk lasting heart problems; Donald Trump: blarrrrrrgh!), with lots more tweets surely to follow.

This makes it a good time to take a step back and see what we’ve learned so far from sports leagues that have restarted since Covid took hold this spring, and what it can tell us about how to proceed from here. Unfurl the data points:

That is, honestly, not a terrible track record overall — back in the spring, it wasn’t clear that any sports leagues would be able to finish out their seasons, so a range from successful restarts to “limping along but might make it to the finish line” is better than expected. And there are definitely some lessons that we can learn from the spread of results:

  • If you want to play sports without an outbreak of virus, start with less virus. I mean, duh: The best way not to get infected is not to be around people who are infected, and in places like Taiwan, players could pretty much be sharing forks without much worry about contracting Covid. Likewise, even if NHL players busted out of their Canadian bubbles and hit the casinos (which are open), the level of community spread there is low enough that they’d stand a good chance of rolling the (metaphorical, virus-related) dice and coming away lucky.
  • Bubbles work. There was tons of skepticism that the NBA could pull off its bubble in the middle of the world’s biggest Covid hot spot without tons of infections, but so far it’s working well. Of course, we’re not even two weeks into the resumption of the season, and the entire two-month playoffs are still to go, so it remains to be seen if the league can keep its protective wrapping intact through October, especially as players start going stir-crazy. (Though player families will be allowed to enter the bubble at the end of the first round on August 30, after they’ve quarantined for two weeks.)
  • Testing works, sort of. The Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks have gotten lots of attention as a sign that MLB didn’t really have a plan for its bubble-less season — and, indeed, there are lots of signs that it didn’t, especially when the decision on whether the Marlins would play after positive tests at one point came down to texting their shortstop to see what he thought. And the uncertainty on when it was safe for teams to resume play has exposed all kinds of issues with how to interpret test results, thanks to everything from false positives and false negatives to the problem that it can take a few days for someone to test positive even after contracting the virus. But on another level, it’s a success: MLB has been aggressively testing its players — to the point where there are concerns that athletes are soaking up testing capacity and causing delays in test results for civilians — and managed to keep any outbreaks from spreading beyond those two teams. That may be the best you can hope for in a non-bubble league.
  • Actually playing sports doesn’t seem to be a huge risk. Unless I’ve missed something, there remain zero cases of athletes catching the coronavirus from opponents during games, even in higher-contact sports like soccer. (Early speculation that the Marlins got infected from the Atlanta Braves‘ catchers appears to have been incorrect — the Braves players never tested positive, though they did have Covid-like symptoms — and it’s more likely someone picked it up by going out for coffee or drinking at the hotel bar.) That actually jibes well with research that shows that “Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time“; it’s simply hard to get infected if you’re only in close proximity to another player for a couple of minutes at a time. What’s super-dangerous is being in a clubhouse (or hotel bar) with teammates for extended periods, as witness how both the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks spread like wildfire through those teams, even taking out the Philadelphia Phillies‘ visiting clubhouse attendant who shared indoor breathing space with the infected Marlins.
  • Indoor sports, and those with more contact, are less charted territory: The only good examples we have so far for indoor sports transmission are the NBA and NHL, which have barely begun play, and which are taking place in virus-free bubbles, so we haven’t seen how an outbreak would play out there. Likewise, nobody’s played any American football since the pandemic began; Australian Rules Football teams have been forced to bubble in hotels and move games to less virus-y parts of Australia, but don’t seem to have suffered major outbreaks among players, at least.
  • Getting Covid can be really, really serious, even for young, healthy athletes. As noted above, one of the concerns pushing college football to consider postponements is that doctors are noting an increase in myocarditis — basically, inflamed heart muscle — among college athletes, something that could be a passing thing, or could be a chronic problem. Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez has already been ruled out for the entire 2020 season thanks to Covid-related heart problems, and while team execs say they’re “very optimistic” he’ll make a full recovery, with a disease that’s only existed in humans for less than a year, they’re really only just guessing.

That’s still very much a work in progress, and lots more questions remain unanswered, including what on earth MLB should do if one of its teams suffers a Marlins- or Cardinals-style outbreak in the middle of the playoffs. Baseball officials are reportedly considering setting up bubbles for its postseason, though they’d still have to figure out how to have teams and their traveling parties quarantine first for two weeks; also, right now the only advantage teams finishing with better regular-season records would get in the expanded playoffs would be home-field advantage, which wouldn’t mean much if no teams were playing at home. As for college football, it’s hard to say what the risks are until someone starts playing and we see how many people turn up sick, though the indicators for a sport with tons of teams and huge rosters and no bubbles sure don’t seem too promising.

Still, there are some lessons here, and they’re reasonably hopeful ones: If you can manage to play in a nation with low virus levels, or keep your players and staff from ever interacting with the outside world, you can play sports, and maybe even allow fans in, relatively safely — though “relatively” is obviously less reassuring if you wind up being one of the few players getting sick. Really, the most important message here is the same one as for the rest of our pandemic world: If you want to reopen things that are important to you, keep wearing masks and stay away from house parties. The best way not to contract Covid remains having fewer infectious people to catch it from, so if it means shutting down restaurants and bars to keep schools open — or shutting down college football to allow other activities to proceed, or even shutting down everything until viral levels are down to near-zero — that’s the kind of calculus we need to be making right now. It worked for New Zealand!

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10 comments on “With college football season on the brink, what can we learn from sports leagues that have restarted play?

  1. I will be reporting any and all leagues/sports (professional or college level) to the House Un-American Activities Committee that do not open fully with sold out stadiums.

    I will not stand for any tyranny by these so called businesses or educational institutions.

  2. I’m not a mathematician, but I think I can confidently say that near-zero is not the same as zero.

    1. Close counts in epidemiology as well as horseshoes and hand grenades. Though obviously it’s more important that R0 stays less than or around 1, so that not only the base but the exponent is low.

      1. ……..and then there’s this: https://nypost.com/2020/08/11/hawaii-seeing-fastest-rate-of-covid-19-spread-of-anywhere-in-us/

        …..and this: https://nypost.com/2020/08/11/new-zealand-orders-lockdown-after-four-new-covid-19-cases-emerge/

        Is it just possible that, barring mandatory hazmat suits for everyone, all persons living on this planet, excepting some hermit living in the Montana wilderness, are eventually going to be exposed to this virus. Yes, we had to and did flatten the curve. I haven’t seen in my area or any other place where the hospitals are over capacity for covid victims. How long do we have to wait for a vaccine? Months? Years? Decades?
        Why do healthy people have to be quarantined, locked down, locked out, masked and gloved, and curfewed? I, and many others, believe we have a strong immune system and want to live our lives freely. I have been saying since March that people should be treated like adults and let them decide for themselves their personal level of precautions. You know, that thing called pursuit of happiness? End of rant.

        1. That’s a lot of questions! Let’s take them in order:

          1) If we do nothing, eventually most of humanity will get the virus, yes, and a few million of them will die. That’s maybe not the optimal outcome, but fortunately there are ways to prevent that.

          2) Until a vaccine is ready! Over/under is probably around another six months at this point, though even then it wouldn’t put an end to Covid, just slow it, hopefully enough that we can go back to something like normal. But even now, there are ways we can start going back to normal without risking renewed surges — especially if we get infection rates down first, and do the things that are necessary to keep them there (masks, minimal sharing of indoor space, test and trace, etc.).

          3) Because there’s no way to tell healthy people from asymptomatic sick people.

          4) Unfortunately, with a pandemic “everyone decides for themselves” doesn’t work, because your decision affects the rest of society as much or more than it does you. It’s a bit like, oh, driving on the sidewalk — when your actions are endangering those around you, that’s not something we usually consider acceptable to address with “to each his own.”

          1. Make Hazmats suits MANDATORY! Then a deep sea driver suit on top of that. After all, we banned public smoking in bars we can do that. You have no right to kill me. Wear your Hazmat suit and deep sea diver suit

  3. We are still in the early stages of “sports resumption”. Yes, the NBA/NHL bubbles appear to have worked so far. But there have been players discovered not adhering to bubble rules, and we are only a week or two into bubble life for most of the players.

    I’m not confident young men with extraordinarily high incomes will accept being bubbled for as long as this is going to take. As you noted, the NBA isn’t into their playoffs yet and the NHL’s actual playoffs (not qualifying round) just started today.

    Cleveland suspended two players this week for not following team rules in relation to isolation. You’d have to think there are others who aren’t following the rules in all sports. It is likely a matter of when not if infections spread to NBA and NHL players.

    For every Fauci who now claims we might have hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine by the end of the year, there are others (including some of the actual researchers doing the work) who say we likely won’t, or that given the nature of this particular virus there may never be a suitable vaccine.

    I’d say we still don’t know whether we will have one or not, nevermind when.

    Of course, if you want to try Vlad’s Sputnik V… I’m sure it will soon be available. Possibly even carrying the US presidential seal as an endorsement…. Hey, if it works for beans….

  4. By far my favourite part of MLB resuming has been that the Marlins hastily assembled replacement roster of castoffs and 48yr old former Yankees is actually much better than the carefully assembled original roster.

    Finally, the Marlins are delivering actual entertainment to us all.

    I’ve been scanning the cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands in some detail. I just know Sean Spicer will be in there somewhere….

  5. Have we considered seeing if New Zealand is willing to let our football players in? They don’t use most of their rugby fields during our winter/their summer.

  6. Bubbles only work when they are feasible. Baseball wanted 900 games for its regular season. Have fun scheduling that even if you do it by division or whatever baseball has. Games going long or being “rained out” would cause serious problems. Football does not want a lot of games, but needs long breaks between games. That will drive up costs. The NBA is reportedly spending $150 million on its bubble. That is more than $1 million per day. And they only allow 37 people per team. The NHL allows more at 52. That is still smaller than the NFL’s active roster size. College football can have even more players. FBS would probably need to isolate 20000 people for 20 weeks in a number of smaller bubbles. More bubbles increase costs while also increasing risks. The bill for that would be astronomical. I would not have thought that college football could be a bigger drain on resources, but this is one way to do it.

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