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The return of sports anytime soon seems somewhere between unlikely and irresponsible



For a few weeks, I have to admit, I thought it was possible — if not all of it, a righteous portion. But let’s not just tap the brakes on the full-throated return of sports in the midst of a pandemic. We might just have to slam them to the floor.

Keep in mind: This virus spreads easily, and this virus kills — at least 118,000 Americans since the end of February. Does it need to kill a professional or college athlete — or coach, or staff member — to have officials reel back these plans?

Let’s hope not. But over the course of the past week, here is what we learned: Two MLB teams closed their spring training facilities in Florida after both players and staff either tested positive or showed symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that shut down sports more than three months ago. The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning reported that three players, in addition to some staff members, tested positive, and the team shuttered its rink. Nick Watney presented the PGA Tour with its first positive test after just five competitive rounds had been completed since golf’s return.

And football. Oh, dear, football.

In the NFL, members of several teams — including Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott — have tested positive. And that’s just what’s publicly known. In college, last year’s College Football Playoff title game participants, Clemson and LSU, have reportedly combined for more than 50 positive tests — and full-on practice hasn’t even begun.

This is the environment in which sports are going to return? That now seems somewhere between unlikely and irresponsible.

Let’s look at this a couple of ways. Start with policies. The pro leagues other than baseball — which can’t get its owners and players to agree on which way the sun rises, let alone health and safety protocols — are either planning to implement or have already implemented policies aimed at creating a safe bubble in which their players and staffs can perform their jobs without being exposed to the virus.

And yet the NHL, which only allowed players to return in small groups June 8, announced Friday that 11 of 200 players have tested positive. What next? The rest just skate forward toward the opening of training camps, scheduled for July 10?

Or baseball. Put aside the tired negotiations for MLB to even conduct a season, bickering about economics before health concerns had been allayed. The Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies were among the teams to reopen their spring training sites. The Phillies had five players and three staff members test positive. A Blue Jays player showed symptoms.

By Saturday, all MLB facilities in Florida and Arizona had been shut down. That can’t be anything close to surprising to anyone following the data. (That science has somehow become a controversial piece of all of this is further evidence that we are a broken nation, but for the purposes of this column, I’ll just put my mask back on and stick to sports.)

There’s a geographical element to this, and Florida and Arizona are central to it. According to data compiled by The Washington Post, on May 1, the date Arizona officials relaxed stay-at-home restrictions and began reopening, the state had 314 new coronavirus cases. On Saturday, that number was 3,109. The graph charting the state’s seven-day average — a key metric that is supposed to guide experts and, in turn, government officials about regulations — looks like a steady climb up a steep hill. It has never been higher.

Florida is hardly different. On May 4, when the state began reopening, there were 819 new cases reported. By Saturday, that number was 4,049. A flattened curve? It’s as if officials and residents are aggressively trying to make it spike — and succeeding. And this is the state in which the NBA is trying to stage the rest of its regular season and all of its playoffs, in a bubble outside Orlando.

Yes, several states — New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania among them — are doing an excellent job steadily lowering their numbers, but even states that aggressively deployed lockdowns on the early side are struggling. Take California. Its seven-day average is at an all-time high, more than 3,500 new cases a day recently. And it is home to three MLB teams, three NFL teams, three NBA teams, three NHL teams and four major college football programs.

Can bubbles — with what would honestly need to be daily testing of everyone involved — actually be built? Given the positive tests from what have amounted to bubbles already, that seems dubious.

Now, to football. Football, which has a professional league that is still forging forward with the idea of staging a season on time and in full. Football, which has a college governing system that is far-flung and discordant, which makes overseeing health and safety protocols nearly impossible, as my colleague Will Hobson pointed out in a story published online Friday.

From both the inside and the outside, football looks crazy. Contact is both encouraged and required, and if you have seen football players heaving at the end of a game — bottom-of-the-lungs breaths, expelling all those droplets out again just to stand upright — you can’t help but think about what they’re doing to one another over the course of a play or a drive or a practice or a game.

“I mean, we’re going to social distance, but we play football?” Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay asked during a media appearance this past week. “This is really hard for me to understand all this. I don’t get it. I really don’t.”

That’s the view from the inside. The outside might be even more dire.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, told CNN. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

Until mass segments of the nation’s population — including some state and federal officials and, oh, yes, the president — started ignoring the scientists who should be behind any policy, that kind of statement might have stopped sports before they started. Yet after Fauci’s comment, President Trump tweeted: “Tony Fauci has nothing to do with NFL Football. They are planning a very safe and controlled opening.”

And so here we charge, into a very frightening unknown. So many Americans are clearly hoping the worst of the virus is over, and the return of sports would help not only signal that but reinforce it. But the science and the data don’t tell us that’s the case — not at the moment, and certainly not into the fall and winter.

If players and staff are testing positive for a disease that has killed tens of thousands of Americans even before sports really begin again, it’s worth asking: When do the positive cases, and the concern for athletes and staff, outweigh the benefit of playing games?

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