On Friday, just as Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association were as close to coming to a deal as they have been at any point throughout their protracted-to-the-point-of-torturous “negotiation” to get back on the field, COVID-19 popped back up to remind everyone why they were in such a pickle to begin with. NBC Sports Philadelphia reported that 5 players and three staff members training at the Phillies complex in Clearwater, Florida, had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that 20 more players were awaiting their own tests. The news broke just as cases in Florida and Arizona, the two states that host MLB training camps, were spiking, and it inspired all 30 MLB teams to close their facilities there and commence camp in their home stadiums. Baseball never did figure out its labor and financial issues, but an abbreviated season is likely to begin in late July anyway. They have a detailed health and safety plan for that abbreviated season. But that’s all it is right now: just a plan.
This isn’t just baseball’s issue right now — far from it. As players have begun gathering for “involuntary” workouts in various sports, testing has ramped up, and at least partially as a result, we have seen a leap in confirmed cases. The NHL has had 11 players test positive, including 3 from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s best running back, tested positive along with five of his Dallas Cowboys teammates. (Elliott wasn’t particularly happy that the news of his diagnosis leaked out.) Tennis star Novak Djokovic has tested positive, as a result, as it turns out, of an incredibly ill-advised exhibition tournament he himself had organized. But the real blowup has been in college sports, where an ever-growing list of schools have seen clusters of cases — including LSU and Clemson, the two teams that played in the national title game last year. (And that’s not even accounting for the schools that aren’t releasing results of their team’s tests.) An Athletic story about an outbreak among the Kansas State football team showed how quickly the virus spread among teammates, largely thanks to an off-campus party players attended upon returning to campus for practice. College students will always be college students, pandemic or not.
Meanwhile, a number of NBA players aren’t that keen on returning to play at the end of next month, because of both the ongoing Black Lives Matters protests and the virus. And with the United States’ embarrassing failure to control COVID-19 (as opposed to countries like Germany and Spain, both of which have soccer leagues that are back to business, albeit with no fans in the stands), there is increasing concern that sports will not be played at all in this country in 2020. (The possibility led to a certain endgame fatalism in MLB negotiations; why give ground to the other side if the season’s going to be shut down anyway?)
But it’s a little odd to witness some of the heated, even panicked reaction to athletes testing positive in all of these sports — it’s surprising that some people are so surprised. Because the dark truth about the return to sports is that there were always going to be positive tests. It’s just that leagues, and even fans, aren’t nearly as alarmed as they once were at the prospect.
When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert confirmed that he had contracted COVID-19 before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 11, the NBA shut down, and the rest of the sports world quickly followed. But as NBA commissioner Adam Silver attempted to sell players and owners on the league trying to finish its season in May, he explicitly said that if a positive test would “shut us down, we probably shouldn’t go down this path.” The NFL’s chief medical officer sang a similar tune in May, conceding, “We fully expect that we will have positive cases that arise … Our challenge is to identify them as quickly as possible and prevent spread to any other participants.”
COVID-19 itself has not changed during that time period. In fact you can make a pretty solid argument that we’re in a worse position in regard to the pandemic right now than we might have thought back in March. Regardless, the leagues are going to plunge forward. A big part of their thinking boils down to money: Some estimates believe the NBA would lose $2 billion if the season did not resume, and the effect a college-football-season cancellation would have on higher-education budgets is staggering to comprehend. (Do not even try to wrap your mind around what a year with no NFL would do to the broadcast-television industry.) But as more and more players test positive, another unsettling fact is becoming clearer: The sports Establishment just isn’t that worried about its players’ health.
That’s a strong statement. But to be clear, I’m not arguing that leagues and teams don’t care about their players’ health. Athletes are certain to get better medical care for any ailment from their well-compensated team doctors and sports scientists than they would from the urgent care down the street. But the powers that be aren’t that scared about players getting the coronavirus — or at least not to the point that they’ll cancel seasons to avoid the possibility. The thinking is that an elite athlete will fight off COVID-19 pretty easily.
Every release about a positive test always notes that the player, named or otherwise, is asymptomatic, not sick, or as Elliott’s agent put it, “feeling good.” We have seen Gobert, teammate Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Durant, and others contract COVID-19 and come out just fine. (Well, “just fine.”) The overwhelming consensus is that the best way to fight COVID-19 is to be young and healthy: Essentially, be a top-tier athlete. A recent CDC study noted only a 3.7 hospitalization rate for people between the ages of 20 and 29, and a fatality rate of 0.1 percent. And that’s a wide sampling of people; it stands to reason that the rate for someone in peak physical condition is much lower.
This is not to say that COVID-19 doesn’t leave its mark on even the healthiest of people. Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller (who has asthma) told the Times that his illness was “surreal,” and Andrew Boselli, an offensive lineman at Florida State, said his temperature hit 104 and that it was the “sickest I’ve ever felt.” Many medical experts have noted the increased rate of hospitalizations among young people as well. We are still very much in the early stages of understanding this virus, and there may be long-term ramifications of contracting it that we won’t know about for years, maybe even decades.
But sports leagues don’t stay afloat by worrying about the long-term health of their athletes, as we’ve learned from the NFL. They are concerned with right now. And the odds appear to be very much in their favor that even if a large percentage of their players contract the virus, they will recover and be able to play moving forward. In college sports, the mindset actually seems to be that it is better to get the virus now than during the season; think of it almost as an athlete being pre-disastered, or a pitcher timing his Tommy John surgery in order to avoid missing a full season. This timing issue came into play with the Orlando Pride of the NWSL, which had to pull out of its league’s tournament, set to kick off in six days in Utah, after six players and four staffers tested positive. The problem wasn’t that the players had COVID-19; it’s that they were infected too close to the beginning of the tournament. If the tournament didn’t start until late July, you can bet the Pride would be there. If you’re a sports executive or college athletic director and you believe the growing (if not definitive) consensus on immunity, this puts you in a position of considerable moral hazard: Secretly, you might rather a player be stricken now, before the season starts, rather than at a less convenient time.
That’s cold-blooded, and no executive would go on record saying anything like it. But it’s the unspoken subtext to every positive test of a player at this point. Which raises the inevitable question: Once the ball gets rolling and seasons begin, what would cause leagues to cancel their seasons altogether? Dr. Fauci has argued that the NFL and MLB should make sure to wrap things up before the much-feared “second wave” in the fall, but it’s not like the spikes in Arizona or Florida right now are causing much second-guessing. It’s tough to see how leagues would be more likely to stop the season in the middle than they would be right now — barring an outbreak that takes out entire teams at once and makes it impossible to play actual games. (More of an issue in the bubble of the NBA than in the NFL and MLB, all told.) Leagues would like to get in and out of 2020 the best they can and hope for better days (and fans in the stands, and vaccines, and unicorns and rainbows) in 2021. But they’ve come this far: They’re going to try to follow this through to the end.
Forgive me for being macabre, but I think the only thing that would stop them is nothing short of a player death. Coaches and support staff and those surrounding the game are older than the athletes, and therefore at higher risk. Therefore, one could imagine that leagues (and even many fans) would be able to disassociate themselves from something terrible happening to one of them — expressing remorse and sadness, but not responsibility. (Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, 69 years old, has said he’d have “no reservations” about coaching in the pandemic, and his view is thought to be widely shared by lifers inside these sports.)
But if a player dies? The whole thing would go up in smoke, and probably not just in the short term. An athlete death would be a stain on these leagues forever. Again: The odds are against it. But all it takes is one. It’s not as if some players aren’t at least somewhat immunocompromised: NBA MVP James Harden has asthma, for example, and MLB All-Stars Carlos Carrasco and Kenley Jansen have both undergone heart procedures. They would likely be okay, even if they contracted the disease. Almost all players would be. But again: All it takes is one. If one player were to succumb to this virus that has already killed nearly 500,000 people worldwide, the whole calculus for the entire return of sports would collapse. It wouldn’t be seen as something that could unite us, or distract us, or provide solace during an uncertain time. It would just be seen as a cash grab for executives sitting in luxury suites, viewing from a safe distance as a player they rushed back to the field lost their life.
This is unlikely to happen. The entire sports-industrial complex is assuming it’s not going to happen. But it could. If you’re wondering why sports is forging forward despite positive tests, it’s because the people who run sports do not think the virus is going to kill any of its players. Let us all pray that they are right.