As we attempt to have a muted celebration of the nation’s birthday this weekend, trying to be responsible and not assemble in large crowds right now, we’re also on the cusp of what should be an interesting experiment in American society.
Can the nation start up, and more importantly sustain, several major college and professional sports at once in the coming months? Administrators and athletic directors will be on pins and needles.
Planning, and executing those plans, is their job. And there is only one thing certain in carrying out those duties right now during a global pandemic — uncertainty.
Major League Baseball players are reporting to summer training for the upcoming shortened season this week. NBA players report to central Florida July 9 to resume their 2019-20 regular season next month, before the playoffs wrap up in October. NFL players will report for training camp soon as the reduced preseason games are only six weeks away.
Meanwhile, college football players have already been on campus for workouts and outbreaks of COVID-19 have interrupted those workouts at some of those campuses. And, that’s without the thousands of students yet to arrive on campus, circulating among them in classes and in typical gatherings that are part of collegiate life.
Iowa has been in the nation’s spotlight as the only state with high school summer baseball and softball — they are spring sports in other states — with both of those condensed seasons heading toward their respective state tournaments later this month. Locally, the teams have been fortunate to have been COVID-free, but eight baseball teams and four softball teams have had mandatory 14-day suspensions of practice and games because a player or coach tested positive for COVID-19.
What’s the threshold?
As we move forward with sports as a major part of the nation’s reopening effort, the real dilemma is this: What’s the threshold? What number of affected team members (or staff) can be afflicted with this coronavirus and still keep playing games?
The virus isn’t going anywhere for a long while. So, if we know there will be positive cases in every sport, there has to be a plan for deciding when it’s still OK to proceed, and when it’s imperative to shut down for awhile. You can’t shut down the whole team for two weeks every time there is one positive test. Few teams would be left playing. Schedules and TV broadcast plans would be in chaos.
I don’t envy anyone who has to come up with plans. It’s a moving target.
The uncertainty about being able to carry out fall seasons in 2020 is staring us in the face. This virus is a forest fire, with embers here and there triggering regionalized outbreaks that are starting to test the resources of hospitals, particularly in states like Texas, Florida and Arizona.
Now, more than 15 states have rolled back economic reopenings such as bars, restaurants and beaches during the year’s busiest summer holiday weekend.
Where we go with sports during all of this will come down to three possibilities: 1) they start up, and through some incredible good fortune, perhaps from the public realizing that diligence is still required, the seasons get completed; 2) the season starts and has to be stopped because of large outbreaks affecting the integrity (and safety) of the sport and the teams involved; 3) they decide not to try and just wait until 2021.
Obviously, the professional leagues, even without fans, and especially the college athletic budgets, can’t withstand the economic blow of a lost 2020 season and at least the television revenue that comes with it. Earlier projections of 30 to 50 percent capacity in the stands may not hold up under the trend lines of recent outbreaks in this country, especially among the 20 to 40 age group.
The argument has been made that the hospitalization and mortality rate is low among the younger age group of these athletes, which is true in most cases. But, there are exceptions. Medical experts advise against the temptation of wanting everyone to get it and recover before the crucial part of their season.
Even among those who have had it, sustainability of immunity and long-lasting complications are two massive unknowns. Some coaches, like Wake Forest football coach Dave Clawson whose wife has been undergoing cancer chemotherapy treatments, are spending the entire upcoming season separated from their family out of concern for their safety.
Dr. Michael Saag, a national infectious disease expert from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, told Keith Murphy of WHO-TV sports that long-term consequences of this disease are not discussed enough.
“Nobody really knows what to expect from this virus, and as a globe we are discovering it in real time,” Saag said. “I had this in March and I’m still not the same when I’m walking uphill, and my sense of smell is still gone. What we’re worrying about with this particular strain is that some young people are getting airway damage that won’t show up until later in their life. Nobody wants this thing, believe me.”
Close proximity of people, especially indoors where the air isn’t wafting away in a breeze, is the main concern. So, a team’s quarterbacks meeting in a room may present a more contagious situation than getting tackled by someone. Do you want them all infected at the same time? Probably not.
One way to keep them safe is to refrain from large group situations, such as tightly grouped team photos, as tempting as that is when you’ve been successful at a tournament. Just that act alone could spark another outbreak, and interrupt a season.
Distancing when you can, wearing masks especially in indoor settings, continues to be supported by most medical experts, despite so much conflicting information circulating on social media. Those comments were just made to Congress on Tuesday by Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield, current director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s why athletic directors are monitoring crowds in bleachers in trying their best to get people to comply with distancing precautions that could keep the season alive. I saw pretty good separation of households at a recent high school game, but some were nudged inside that 6-foot guideline.
But, still, when college kids begin gathering on campuses and our children are mixing at school and coming home after possible exposure, with multi-generational family members in many households, it’s going to get sticky. I’m not trying to be a prophet of doom. Just realistic.
We’re going to need luck. A lot of it.
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