Last week, I examined the possible return of college football and its impact on the athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, I turn my attention to professional sports, especially baseball, basketball and football.
Thursday is opening day for Major League Baseball, marking the return of the largest professional sports in this country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Next Friday, the NBA begins its “seeding games” leading to a normal playoff schedule. And the NFL, as of now, plans to start its season as scheduled on September 10.
These are three leagues with three different coronavirus plans. Virus numbers might change over the coming months, but the leagues’ different protocols will give us a glimpse into what works and what doesn’t.
Here’s a comparison of what the three leagues are doing to try to prevent the virus from spreading.
Play in a bubble or not
The NBA will resume its postponed 2019-20 season in a bubble. Every game will be played at what are essentially neutral courts at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. On the other hand, the NFL and MLB will not play in a bubble. Instead, the games will be played in team stadiums. Playing only 60 games instead of the regular 162, baseball elected for teams to only play divisional games and teams from the corresponding divisions in the opposite league (NL East teams play the AL East teams, for example), keeping teams essentially in their regions of the country.
Testing protocols and plans for players testing positive
MLB players will be tested every other day by a saliva sample. They will also be screened daily for fevers and symptoms. Also, about once a month, players will undergo a blood draw to test for COVID-19 antibodies.
If a player tests positive, that player must immediately self-isolate. He cannot return to the roster until he has been free of fever for at least 72 hours, has had two negative test results at least 24 hours apart and completes an antibody test. Team officials will work to identify anyone that player might have come in contact with during the incubation period.
In the NBA, players had to be tested before traveling to Orlando. They were quarantined for at least 24 hours until they had two negative tests. Once out of quarantine, they will “undergo regular coronavirus testing.”
If a player tests positive, he cannot participate with his team until at least 14 days must have passed from the latter of their first positive test or the resolution of their symptoms. He must complete two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart, a positive antibody test within the past 30 days, and a negative rapid coronavirus test before any close, physical contact.
The NFL is still working with the Players’ Association to determine testing protocols. The league has contracted with an outside firm to perform contact tracing of any player who tests positive. Players and team personnel will wear proximity recording tracking devices, which allow contact tracers to identify the contacts of someone who tested positive.
Roster sizes and COVID-19 injury lists
The NBA increased the roster size for the 22 teams who will play in the Orlando bubble to 17 players. For players who test positive or exhibit symptoms, MLB created a special COVID-19 injury list that doesn’t count against the 60-man player pool. The NFL is still working out the details of expected roster issues when players test positive. Among the ideas reportedly being considered are expanded active rosters and bigger practice squads. A virus-specific injured reserve list might also be created.
Entertainment available to players
The biggest changes regarding entertainment affect the NBA players, as they are living in Orlando for the time being. Within the bubble, the NBA has allowed players access to barbers on site, bowling, golf at the resort, fishing excursions, and trip to the theme parks after hours.
Travel and food options
On the road, MLB and NFL players will essentially be quarantined in their rooms when not at or traveling to and from the stadium. They are not permitted to use public pools or fitness centers. Teams will have private dining rooms. Players cannot eat in restaurants open to the public but can order room service and delivery from contactless food delivery services.
While at the hotel, NFL players or staff may not have visitors in their rooms who aren’t members of the team’s traveling party.
Sport-specific changes based on COVID-19
In addition to a number of changes to the game itself, such as universal designated hitters, runners starting on second base in extra innings and more, baseball has banned spitting during games. Pitchers can use a wet rag in their back pocket, as they are no longer allowed to lick their fingers or blow on their hands on the mound.
After months of clamoring for the return of sports, fans finally get their wish. We will see how effectively the leagues can keep players safe while the games go on.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the July 21, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.