MORGANTOWN — Is it time to get back to business as usual?
That’s the question facing numerous industries amid the shuttering of much of the economy nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those industries is sports, which was among the first to sound the alarm when the NBA and NCAA abruptly canceled their remaining seasons in mid-March. Most other professional leagues would soon follow, including the NFL, NHL and MLB.
Now, sports fans are clamoring for a return to play, with the MLB and NBA exploring options to resume their season and UFC owner Dana White going as far as to secure a private island to hold events.
But the question of just how safe it is to resume, even months after the initial lockdown of much of the economy, still hangs in the air without a good answer either way. But the limited data and information available shows that it likely might be best to tune into another episode of marble racing — yes, it’s real — on YouTube and hold off returning to the regularly scheduled programming we’re accustomed to.
Just two weeks ago, UFC 249 went on as originally scheduled despite the pandemic — the day before, fighter Jacare Souza and two of his cornermen had to remove themselves from the event after testing positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Germany is considered to be in a much better position in terms of handling the pandemic. The data at Johns Hopkins University estimates that, in the United States, 24.66 people per 100,000 have died of COVID-19, as of last week. In Germany, the rate is 9.24 — meaning the American death rate is 2.5 times that of Germany.
Last weekend, they made an attempt to return to play in the Bundesliga, the country’s premier professional soccer league, with team personnel quarantining and no fans in attendance at games. But a week before the league was slated to restart, Dynamo Dresden was forced into isolation after two players testing positive, and the head coach of Augsburg had to break his quarantine to buy toothpaste, and now will need two negative tests before he can rejoin his team.
These two incidents give a microcosmic look at the difficulties in returning to normal sports play. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been at the forefront of the U.S. response to the pandemic, has been asked about how sports could safely resume at the moment — he did say that it’s feasible, but would require some unique strategies to make it work.
“There’s a way of doing that. Nobody comes to the stadium, put them in big hotels and keep them very well surveilled, but have them tested each week,” he said earlier this year.
But isolation of players, coaches, trainers, physicians, officials, hotel staff, and others involved in the operation of such a return could prove to be problematic. An April analysis published in USA Today estimated an MLB proposal to quarantine and play solely in Arizona would require the cooperation, isolation, and constant testing of nearly 10,000 individuals.
But that may not be possible — there has been a struggle to get many normal citizens to just wear a mask in public places, and the U.S. has tested just 248,000 nationwide per day on average as of early May. Meanwhile, Harvard’s Global Health Institute believes that to have a fully accurate picture of the pandemic and its scope, testing needs to be 900,000 per day in the U.S.
And many pro athletes have concerns about returning to play under these conditions during this time, as many workers in other industries have about returning to their workplaces.
“What are you going to do with family members — my wife is pregnant. What am I going to do when she goes into labor...I can’t miss the birth of our first child,” Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels told NBC Sports in an interview.
And when discussing college and high school sports — where athletes are on campuses and in buildings with non-athletes and school faculty much of the day, and where quarantining likely will be less feasible with academic requirements such as class — things get even more fuzzy. And at the D2 level, the maximum and minimum number of contests for the upcoming season has already been reduced as financial issues are arising with college athletic departments nationwide.
And with so many potential complications and roadblocks to the process, as well as the safety of so many athletes, coaches, fans, and other personnel at risk if things go wrong, it’s not difficult to understand why bringing back sports at the moment may not be the easiest venture, and given the other issues on our national plate with the pandemic, may not be an issue worth concerning ourselves with given the potential issues.
As a sports reporter and former athlete, I certainly miss watching action in person and on TV. I’d rather have spent this month watching jumps, shot put, and sprints at the state track meet than sitting in my house binging Hulu and writing from home. I certainly don’t want to see the ESPN-broadcast The Basketball Tournament, slated to come to West Virginia this summer, to be affected, nor do I want to see any seniors lose their season this upcoming year.
At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the numbers and the positive tests, and it’s even tougher to put a price on the safety of athletes, coaches, and spectators. As we cross the 95,000 death mark, we come close to passing the worst flu season in our nation’s history, in a matter of a few months.
If COVID-19 was a war, it would be the fourth deadliest in our nation’s history. And with the death toll rising by 2,000-plus each day and projected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to hit 3,000 per day by June, we may be only 10-15 days away from eclipsing our World War I death toll.
To me, sports is important. It plays a huge role in my work and my personal life, and has been a large part of who I am as a person over my 25 years of existence. But in New York, a college football teammate of mine at Alderson Broaddus was an essential worker. Now, he’s dead, before hitting 30, due to COVID-19.
If I could speak once more to my former teammate and classmate Trip, and I ask him whether sports returning yet were worth his life, or the life of countless others, I’m fairly certain he’d say no. But I can’t ask him. I never will be able to.
But we can ask Mike Trout, Jacare Souza, and NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns, whose mother passed in April from the illness, whether they think returning is worth the potential issues and risks. And while I can’t vouch for their answers, maybe we should start asking more of those athletes and less fans watching from the safety of their homes.
What I can vouch, though, is my answer. And my answer with confidence — as a fan of countless sports, as a reporter who will be covering these events once they return, and as someone whose current livelihood depends on the industry — is that it isn’t time to return to action, regardless of how much I wish it was.