COVID Is Catching Up to American Pro Sports Again

Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden were in the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Tuesday. Photo: Getty Images

After tedious measures taken during the prior COVID years — or the alternate approach of just ignoring the virus — American pro sports leagues have largely experienced 2021-2022 seasons with limited pandemic interruptions, aside from some stars getting in trouble for opting out of vaccination. But that fortunate trend appears to be turning south, just as hospitalizations begin to rise ahead of the expected Omicron wave in the United States.

This week, the NBA saw its first game postponements of the year when ten of the 15-man Chicago Bulls roster was placed in the league’s health and safety protocols, which require players to isolate following a positive test. The apparent outbreak in Chicago is not the only COVID exposure in the league: A little north in Milwaukee, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks guard Wes Matthews are also in quarantine. Less than two hours before the Brooklyn Nets tip-off against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, James Harden was required to isolate. According to ESPN, 36 of the league’s 51 positive cases this year have occurred in the last two weeks.

Over in the NHL, multiple postponements have taken place: With nine of their players out, the Calgary Flames delayed three games this week. The Carolina Hurricanes also postponed their Tuesday night game, growing the league-wide tally to nine for suspended games this season. And with the league expected to go on pause next year so players on national teams can attend the 2022 Winter Olympics, the NHL Players’ Association executive director has said he is growing frustrated with a lack of “concrete answers” from the Beijing organizing committee on pandemic protocols, leading to some concerns about just how many pros will be in China in February.

The NFL, with its substantially larger rosters, is getting hit with even more COVID cases. ESPN reports that within the past two days, 75 players have tested positive for the coronavirus. The Los Angeles Rams are one of the harder hit teams, with ten players, including Odell Beckham Jr., on their reserve-COVID-19 list as of Tuesday. The Cleveland Browns and the Washington Football Team currently have eight players each who have tested positive, while the Detroit Lions have seven in quarantine. One Washington Football Team staff member has also tested positive for the Omicron variant.

With the Omicron variant expected to spread rapidly in the U.S. in the coming weeks, it’s unclear how pro sports leagues will be impacted and how they will respond to keep players safe and ad revenue flowing. The NFL, for one, will require all staff members working closely with players to get booster shots. But the athletes’ union, the NFL Players Association, was unable this week to get the league to institute daily testing for everyone on field, regardless of vaccination status. The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association union are also reportedly in talks to increase testing for vaccinated athletes.

COVID Is Catching Up to American Pro Sports Again