- Several professional sports leagues, including the MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS, are resuming play or getting set to open modified seasons amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
- The various leagues are using different models to minimize risk and exposure, including limiting travel or keeping players and staff within a “bubble.”
- The MLB is already experiencing outbreaks with both players and support staff testing positive for the virus.
- While health experts applaud the precautions and use of rapid testing by the MLB, they’re concerned about the overall message that the return of professional sports may send to the public.
Major League Baseball is hoping to finish up its modified season, but recent confirmed cases of COVID-19 are highlighting how quickly the new coronavirus can spread if even just one person breaks the rules.
The league opened last week, using a model where teams limit travel to smaller geographic regions and players stay secluded in hotel rooms.
But like everything with the new coronavirus, those plans are better on paper than in person.
Earlier this week, 13 St. Louis Cardinals players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19, according to CNN.
At the end of July, more than half of the Miami Marlins team had tested positive, postponing their schedule and putting the future of their season in jeopardy as they look to bring in more players.
That’s after one player broke quarantine to go to a strip club for chicken wings.
At the same time, multiple tests among six teams have forced them to postpone their games, highlighting how far the new coronavirus has embedded itself in the United States.
The infections are early tests to see how the return of professional sports — baseball, soccer, hockey, and soon others — can provide a glimpse at prepandemic normalcy, even if ticket holders have to stay at home while cardboard cutouts or empty seats take their place.
But even physical or social distancing guidelines couldn’t stop the L.A. Dodgers and Houston Astros from settling an old score with a bench-clearing brawl.
While experts say the MLB’s traveling method could open them up to a host of problems as support staff and others are vulnerable to the conditions around them, other professional sports are being much more stringent.
Major League Soccer is using a “bubble” method, meaning teams hunker down at Disney World and don’t leave. The National Basketball Association is taking a similar approach, also in Florida, playing under the slogan “A Whole New Game.”
Mark Cameron, PhD, is an associate professor in Case Western Reserve University’s department of population and quantitative health sciences in Cleveland, Ohio. He says the MLB’s plans need to stay flexible, diligent, and set a very public example of continued compliance with public health precautions.
Cameron says both the MLB and the National Hockey League plan, which don’t include the bubble approach, still have the same goal: One team doesn’t want to infect another, meaning every single player is a potential weak link of infection.
“This is teaching us new lessons every day,” Cameron told Healthline.
Experts are concerned that a return to watching live sports could further signal to the general public that things are returning to normal.
That also increases the likelihood of people getting together again for social gatherings, like a backyard barbecue with some beers to watch the game.
And as other infection investigations have found, social gatherings with alcohol under lax public health control can lead to outbreaks, like those seen in Florida after its governor decided to reopen businesses absent of few controls.
Cameron says while the airing of live sports could lull some people into complicity, it also serves as an unlikely public service message: wearing a mask is normal, especially to fans who might think it’s a good time to fill up the cooler, light the grill, and call everyone over without concern for the larger public health crisis raging on the other side of their backyard fence.
“If their sports heroes show that mask use is important, then it shows they should do it whenever they congregate,” he said.
Dr. Rand McClain is the chief medical officer for LCR Health, a regenerative and sports medicine clinic in Santa Monica, California, who works with amateur and professional athletes.
He says positive tests among Marlins players and other teams show the routine and rapid testing systems they have in place are working.
But outside professional sports, Rand is worried that fans could be seeing games resume and falsely assume the U.S. fight against COVID
-19 has reached a point where people can think it’s time to resume backyard barbecues or other gatherings that typically go hand-in-hand with watching sports on television.
“That is going to lead to a lot of problems. There’s a lot going on to protect those athletes, and it’s never going to be perfect,” McClain told Healthline. “There are some intelligent people out there making some ignorant assumptions.”
Those include not fully understanding the amount of money spent on rapid testing being done on a regular basis behind the scenes in the major leagues, possibly lulling people into the false security that COVID-19 is now a smaller threat than months before, despite increasingly rising infection rates.
“That’s a major mistake,” McClain said. “That’s inherent in the human condition.”
But even with near limitless resources for testing and best attempts at physical distance, experts say some things are certain: The new coronavirus isn’t going anywhere for some time, and small mistakes can make a big difference.
“This virus is always looking for a loophole,” Cameron said.