My thinking about the outbreak from this coronavirus has evolved over the last three months. At first, I didn’t think it would affect us like it had. I went from “We should still be able to attend the Memphis Grizzlies game in mid-March” to “Maybe we will get to see it when they reschedule it for this summer” to “There is no way we are ever going to see that game in person.” COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our lives, not just sports. But I, like so many Americans, want sports to come back. In my latest newspaper column, I run a thought experiment about what sports could look like in the fall, if they are played at all.
Why I care about sports and feel comfortable discussing the coronavirus
Let me start by saying I have followed the COVID-19 pandemic as closely as anyone. I’ve made well over 100 appearances on TV stations across the country in the last two months. To prepare, I read several hundred articles and studies on the coronavirus each week. And as an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, I’ve been consumed with projecting what this disease will mean for sports.
I’m also a father. My son will be entering his senior year of high school. He already has one state championship ring, but COVID-19 already cost him an opportunity for a second and might prevent his team from competing for another one in the 2020-21 season. My daughter is on a competitive dance team that finished second in the nation two years ago and third last year. She is now a captain, but she might not have a chance to win nationals in her final year.
And I’m a fan. I always have sports on TV while I write, record videos or do TV interviews at night and on weekends. I have tickets on the 50-yard line, seventh row, for the Florida-LSU game in Gainesville this fall. Believe me, I want sports back.
A thought experiment on sports and COVID-19
I want to run a thought experiment about the short-term future of sports. I’m not saying these ideas are right or wrong, or that we should or shouldn’t do them. This column is meant to start a discussion and look for solutions.
We might not have fall sports, including football, at all.
Let’s start with a frightening assumption. We won’t have sports in the fall. I don’t mean just sports with no fans in attendance, but no sports played at all. I hope I’m wrong, but I have two reasons for fearing the worst.
The germ cloud and contact sport athletes
First, there are virologists talking in the media about the “germ cloud.” Usually this comes up in a discussion about how far people need to stay away from others while running, but the idea is simple. Normally when you talk and breathe, or even sneeze or cough, the air travels 3 to 6 feet from your mouth and nose. That’s largely the reason for the 6-foot social distancing recommendation.
These virologists argue that with heavy physical exertion, the air could travel 10 to 12 feet away. How can you play football or basketball with athletes 10 to 12 feet apart? If that’s going to be the standard, you can’t.
Health officials allowing fans to pack stadiums to watch sports
Then I look at states that have relaxed restrictions on public beaches. Several have allowed people to go to the beach, but people can only walk or run. They can’t stand or lie on the beach. The argument appears to be that people will abuse it and gather in large groups. By that same logic then, at least in my mind, there will be almost no chance politicians and public health officials allow fans to fill stadiums.
Limit ticket sales?
Could colleges and pro teams limit tickets to maintain social distancing? Maybe they could sell 5,000 tickets for the available 70,000 seats to keep people 6 feet apart. But then you would have to keep concessions closed because people would be close together in line. And what about the bathrooms?
Let people assume their own risk?
Could we say that people know the risk of catching the coronavirus by gathering in places with large numbers of people and not staying six feet away? Maybe teams could advise fans over age 50 or 60 to stay home and watch on TV while younger, healthier people might consider coming to watch in person. Could anyone who chooses to attend be asked to sign a waiver releasing the team, school and facility of any fault if they become sick?
Crush high school sports revenue?
Sports without fans could be devastating for high schools. High school football brings in a huge percentage of the revenue for entire athletic departments at many schools. No fans on Friday nights could mean no money for buses to take the girls’ volleyball team or boys’ soccer team to away games or buy new uniforms or equipment for lacrosse or wrestling.
Pro and college sports without fans?
Maybe we can allow the games to go on without fans. Pro sports teams and leagues could quarantine each team in a hotel with no other guests. Officials could test each player every day or every couple of days and isolate any player who tests positive. With college sports, it might be harder to quarantine them, but maybe athletes could take online classes only and stay in dorms with no other students.
Accept that many pro athletes will contract the disease?
If pro and college athletes contract COVID-19, it’s unlikely, based on data we have now, that they will die or become seriously ill. And unlike high school athletes who could spread it to other students at school and their parents and grandparents at home, quarantined pro and college athletes would be unlikely to spread the disease.
We know, though, that the current tests have fairly high false negative rates. Many athletes could be allowed to play despite actually having COVID-19. By the end of the season, a large percentage of players might end up having had COVID-19 at some point during the season.
Only meant to stimulate discussion about sports and COVID-19
Again, this column is only meant to make you think, not argue for a strategy or policy. I am open to suggestions, as I’d love to see sports return. And certainly, much will change in the coming months, and we will learn more about how this virus spreads and whether we can actually contain it. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, whenever sports do return, they will look very different than what we’ve known before.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the May 8, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.