Lee: MLB’s disaster, NBA’s success. How can the NFL safely return?

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The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the schedules of every sports league, disrupting the NBA, MLB and more, and even postponing worldwide events like the Olympics until 2021. Some sports leagues in the U.S. restarted in July, but current pandemic-related problems in those leagues indicate that officials may not have given enough attention to one important question: What happens if a player tests positive? 

After months of hesitation, quiet planning and uncertainty about whether major sports would happen again in 2020, many sports were preparing to come back in some form, provided that work agreements with players could be negotiated and that public health authorities raised no objections. So far, the MLB, NBA, National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) have followed through with adjusted seasons, with the latter three operating in a “quarantine bubble” format. NFL teams started training camp late July, and as of Aug. 24, the league is keeping to its plan of starting on time on Sept. 10.

“Keeping the coronavirus out entirely from the leagues is nearly impossible, given the number of cases reported so far,” said basketball analyst Proby Shandilya in an interview with The Daily. “The overall strategy for now is to best minimize the chance of being shut down again by minimizing the chain of cases.”

The MLB has already seen a significant number of players across several teams test positive for the virus, leading to the rescheduling of 37 games as of Saturday, impacting the schedules of more than a dozen teams. The league began its 2020 season in July and is currently navigating a shortened 60-game schedule amid the pandemic. 

Perhaps the biggest scare came when the Miami Marlins faced a team-wide outbreak only a week after Opening Day on July 23, followed by another team-wide outbreak that sidelined the St. Louis Cardinals and sent several players to the emergency room. The team did not play any games for nearly three weeks, finally returning on Aug. 15 with a 5-1 win over the Chicago White Sox.

On Aug. 15, when all 30 teams were expected to play on the same day for the first time since July 26, the Cincinnati Reds reported that one of their players tested positive, leading to the postponement of their two weekend games against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  

The instances sparked discussions of a potential season shutdown and questions about how effective the MLB safety protocols actually are, particularly the league’s decision to allow teams to travel to play games.

Other sports leagues, including the NWSL, which pulled off a tournament with zero COVID-19 cases, have fared better operating under a “bubble” environment that includes frequent testing inside an isolated athlete village from which players and workers are not allowed to leave.

The NBA’s approach had players and workers quarantined in a bubble near Orlando, Florida, beginning in early July, but with 22 teams and Finals scheduled for mid-October, the league reopening is significantly more ambitious than NWSL’s eight-team month-long affair. However, under the bubble, there have been zero positive tests of the 341 conducted since test results were last announced on Aug. 12, showing that a bubble environment can effectively prevent potentially dangerous outside interactions while still allowing the public to interact with the league via “virtual fan” methods.

NBA officials announced that fans are not allowed for the remainder of the season in the bubble, but players currently in the Orlando bubble are able to attend games. Guests like family members have also begun arriving in Orlando since the conclusion of the playoffs. With the ongoing, worsening condition of COVID-19, there is also uncertainty as to whether NBA officials will allow fans in seats for the 2020-21 season, which may be critical to the league’s profit.

Realistically speaking, the success of the resumption of the NBA is more indicative than other leagues, because basketball requires close physical contact during gameplay. If the NBA is able to successfully complete their season, other high-contact sports like football may be able to more confidently plan for their own. However, the comparison may be moot, since the NFL decided against playing its 2020-21 season in a bubble, making it likely that the NFL’s return could resemble the MLB’s disaster rather than the NBA’s success.  

Unlike the NBA, the NFL has no league-wide restriction on fans at games, instead allowing individual teams to craft their own policies which may allow fans at games in a limited capacity provided they practice social distancing and wear face coverings. Several teams have already elected to do so.

Some have expressed concern about the increased risk of transmission that in-person audiences will bring. There is no guarantee that players themselves won’t contract COVID-19 from a fan, either, even given the precautions. If the NFL wants any chance to complete their season safely, it is crucial that they do the bare minimum of not allowing fans to attend games. 

However, when comparing the MLB’s reopening approach (no fans, no bubble) to the NBA’s (no fans with a bubble), it becomes clear that removing fans from the equation doesn’t stop the spread of COVID-19 amongst players — instead, the presence of the bubble is what makes the difference. Hence, the next step the NFL should take is to reopen negotiations with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to implement a bubble system similar to the NBA’s before the regular season starts.  

An NFL bubble will face challenges in minimizing the chance of an outbreak chain among players, namely due to the large number of people required to follow strict bubble rules. The league has cited housing difficulties, problems with game officials who work other jobs and general undesirability as the main roadblocks to a bubble. However, it is still the best option because the system keeps players contained away from risky interactions with others who have not been regularly tested or quarantined, while securing the opportunity to give fans football to watch from the safety of their homes.

Contact Jun Lee at junseong.lee652 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Jun Lee is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.