Is It Safe for Pro Sports to Return During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

By Kate BoveLast Updated Sep 21, 2020 8:49:53 PM ET
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LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during practice as part of the NBA Restart 2020 on July 13, 2020, in Orlando, Florida. Credit: Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

About five months ago, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) March Madness brackets were busted, the National Basketball Association (NBA) blew the whistle on the 2019-20 season and when Opening Day rolled around, Major League Baseball’s (MLB) parks remained shuttered. This all came in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) insistence that folks should refrain from gathering in groups — let alone stadium-sized crowds — in order to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. As the pandemic swelled and the global death toll climbed, it became clear that missing out on live sports, both in-person and via broadcast, was a rather small price to pay.

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After the NBA suspended play, the MLB, Major League Soccer (MLS) and National Hockey League (NHL) followed suit, as did the NCAA, which, in addition to nixing regular play across all sports, canceled its highly popular March Madness basketball tournament. Despite being a non-contact sport, golf was impacted too: The PGA Tour canceled the Players Championship after just one round. While networks like ESPN and CBS scrambled to find programming — honestly, The Last Dance could not have come at a better time — professional sports leagues and associations of all sorts scrambled to engage fans virtually to varying degrees of success.

Now, following decisions to start reopening the country in most areas, many professional sports organizations have deemed it okay to play — just without fans in attendance. On July 22, the CDC (@CDCgov) reported that "In the last 7 days [as of July 21], #COVID19 cases increased in the U.S. Ten states reported more than 10,000 new cases [with] 3 states each reporting more than 60,000 new cases." In other words, things are only getting worse, and as more states reopen, the general public will become increasingly lax when it comes to following COVID-19 precautions. With this in mind, the danger of pro sports returning is (at least) two-fold: Not only does it put players and staff at risk, but a return to some kind of normalcy also sets a potentially irresponsible precedent.

On one hand, proponents feel that sports help us bond and get through tough times — and that’s undeniably true. On the other, the pandemic is unprecedented — it grows more dangerous as Americans socialize, travel and disregard masks. This desire to watch sports, and the "it will foster camaraderie" defense, can’t be taken from, say, the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) during World War II, and mapped onto our current situation. Each professional sports organization has taken a different approach when it comes to returning to the field (or court) — and some are definitely more meticulous than others.

Inside the Bubble: The WNBA and NBA Restart Their Basketball Seasons in Florida

One of the most talked about returns has been the dual restarts of the NBA and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the latter of which usually plays over the summer months. As of July 22, Florida had reached about 380,000 COVID-19 cases, and, on that same day, the state confirmed 139 new deaths — the second-largest one-day increase in the Sunshine State — which brought its death toll to 5,345 people. Florida also happens to be the place both basketball leagues are calling home — temporarily.

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Jewell Loyd of the Seattle Storm handles the ball during practice on July 11, 2020, at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Credit: Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

In Orlando, NBA players are living and practicing inside the Walt Disney World Resort’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. Under the watchful eye of Mickey Mouse (and the scores of Disney fanatics entering the irresponsible theme park’s grounds), the NBA restarted its 22-team, eight-game regular season wrap-up and then moved on to the playoffs in what they're calling "the bubble."

Nearby, the WNBA entered its own bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Earlier this year, the league and the WNBA players’ union came to an agreement about the 22-game season: It would begin in late July, include a full playoff schedule and, if they opt in, give players 100% of their 2020 salaries. This came on the heels of the WNBA’s recent collective bargaining agreement, which increased players’ salaries and guaranteed them individual hotel rooms when on the road (or in the case of the Florida bubble, larger villas for players living with families, partners and caregivers).

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What Are the Key Differences Between the NBA and WNBA Approaches?

Sports journalists have praised the WNBA’s approach to ensure players’ safety, especially in comparison to the NBA’s slightly riskier situation. Foremost, NBA players who don’t play risk losing their multi-million dollar paychecks, which might encourage players who are not feeling their best to compete. On the other hand, WNBA players filled out symptom surveys and were evaluated by doctors who determined if someone’s health status made them eligible to sit out and still collect a paycheck.

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Credit: Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

Additionally, there are just more people living within the NBA bubble — largely, these teams have way more personnel than WNBA teams have. While the Disney bubble may sound snazzier, the Walt Disney World Resort parks are still open to guests, meaning there’s a higher risk for the virus to spread — especially since some NBA players have already reportedly left the confines of the bubble. With fewer players and a more isolated campus, the WNBA plan seems a bit safer, not to mention players were tested three times before heading to the campus — and tested again upon arrival. If they tested positive, they vacated the premises. If they wanted to take their partners along for a stay in Florida, they had to fly out with the players in July and undergo the same stringent testing protocols. Once the season kicked off, players were required to wear masks during games and undergo routine temp checks and testing.

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Sure, this all means that some WNBA players missed out on the season, but at least there was a clear, sensible process in place. With health risks (and players’ financial security) accounted for, Nneka Ogwumike, forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), told The New York Times that the season could act as a platform for spotlighting activism, saying, "We’ve always been the first in line to speak about social issues, and we see this as a really magical moment for us to turn the unexpected into something that could be very beautiful, with 144 voices in the same place."

The National Women’s Soccer League Devises the Challenge Cup

Professional soccer returned to the states courtesy of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). On June 27, the NWSL became the first professional sports league to resume play in the U.S. with the 25-game Challenge Cup. For the duration of the tournament, players from nine teams traveled to a pair of stadiums and two Salt Lake-area hotels in Utah to live, practice and play.

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Casey Short of the Chicago Red Stars controls the ball against Darian Jenkins of the OL Reign FC during a quarterfinal match of the NWSL Challenge Cup on July 18 in Herriman, Utah. Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Before heading to Utah, all players were screened for COVID-19 and tested again upon arrival in Utah. As with all other returning sports, Challenge Cup stadiums were empty and tests were frequent. The league’s player union secured guaranteed contracts and insurance for the year for all of its players, regardless if they opted in or not, and for parents playing in the cup, extra care was taken to ensure children and an additional caregiver could safely come to the NWSL bubble in Utah. Some big-name athletes who also play for the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team (USWNT), like Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, decided to opt out amid COVID-19 concerns, but for the most part, all of your favorite players are back on the field.

Well, unless your favorite player is a member of the Orlando Pride. Just before the start of the Challenge Cup, several Pride players broke social distancing measures and went to a bar. The news broke quite quickly on Twitter, especially when some of them tested positive for COVID-19. This led to the entire team dropping out of the tournament for safety reasons. Nearly a month later, the Challenge Cup wrapped up on Sunday, July 26, with the Houston Dash taking on the Chicago Red Stars. Fans could tune into the game via CBS All Access or stream it on the NWSL’s Twitch channel.

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The MLB Steps into the Batter’s Box, Despite Players’ Concern Over a Return to Play

In late April, the MLB announced a tentative plan to kick off the 2020 season in Arizona, Florida and Texas — the states known for their Spring Training facilities — to limit cross-country travel. Unsurprisingly, this testing-of-the-waters was met with quite a bit of criticism from players and viewers alike. At the time, many players spoke out against the idea, unwilling to leave their families or endanger them for the sake of playing a game. And that was just one of many issues.

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Boston Red Sox teammates head to the dugout during a summer camp workout on July 19, 2020, at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Needless to say, the MLB found some creative workarounds, namely a virtual video game league that has big-name baseballers playing against each other in MLB: The Show. From Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals and Gavin Lux of the Los Angeles Dodgers to the San Francisco Giants’ very own video game enthusiast Hunter Pence, the MLB: The Show Players League saw some of the sport’s greatest captaining virtual squads.

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After a lot of back-and-forth between the MLB Players Association and the teams’ owners, the league came to an agreement: Players returned to practice on July 1, with games starting on July 23 and the regular season ending on September 27. The season is looking much slimmer with just 60 games, and, in order to mitigate travel, teams will play mostly within their divisions and 10-team regions (for example, the AL and NL East teams will all play each other). In addition to the standard 10-day injured list, the MLB will institute a COVID-19 list for players displaying symptoms; pitchers will no longer bat in the National League in an attempt to speed up play; and at the top of an extra inning, teams will start the inning with a baserunner on second — again, to speed things up.

The contentious negotiations between the players and owners — who felt they couldn’t bear the revenue loss of fan-less stadiums — underscore the fact that the MLB’s return is also about making money. Although it’s not a contact sport, baseball is gearing up to have the riskiest return due to the amount of travel and number of players involved. Ahead of the season, the Phillies, Blue Jays and Twins all reported multiple players with positive COVID-19 results. Recently, Washington Nationals player Juan Soto tested positive just before the team’s season opener against the New York Yankees on Thursday, July 23.

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From NASCAR Races to the PGA Championship and NHL’s Return: Here Are Some Other Pro Sports to Look for This Summer

After the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was forced to postpone races amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the association took a quick left turn into well-charted — but perhaps lesser-known by the general public — territory: the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Eventually, NASCAR confirmed that practice sessions and qualifying sessions weren’t going to happen during the 2020 season to cut down on the risk of COVID-19 transmission, but the association did carry on with the 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race on July 15 with the stands empty.

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Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet, waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Open at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020, in Bristol, Tennessee. Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Meanwhile, golfers returned to the green in August for the PGA Championship. Without a doubt, golf is one of the most socially distanced sports we can think of, and without crowds of quietly clapping spectators around, the courses were even safer for players and their caddies. Those who had to travel to make the tournament at San Francisco’s Harding Park were required to undergo a series of COVID-19 tests. Looking for something a little bit more intense to watch this summer? The NHL announced its return-to-play plan as well, with 24 teams vying for the Stanley Cup at two "hub" cities — not unlike the NBA bubble plan.

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It’s clear there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the return of various professional sports. Moreover, each league is handling things so differently that it’s hard to give a definitive, universal thumbs up or thumbs down to the returns. Some truly wonderful things are coming out of the return of certain sports: Whole NWSL teams wearing black and kneeling during the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement is powerful, to say the least, and it’s clear that the WNBA and NBA both plan to use their platforms for more visible activism too. One thing’s for sure: We can’t let the return of some sense of normalcy lull us into forgetting the very real danger of the pandemic.