How are professional-sports leagues doing as they attempt to complete seasons in the era of the coronavirus?
For the National Hockey League, the restart of play has gone well, with more than 7,000 tests administered in a week and no positive results. NHL teams are playing games in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada, with players restricted to a “bubble” comprising the playing arena, practice facilities, a hotel, and selected dining facilities.
The National Basketball Association’s restart has also been a success thus far. Keeping all the players in a bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando appears to be minimizing their risk of exposure to the virus, and the schedule has proceeded as planned since the games began late last week.
Major League Baseball, without any sort of bubble, has . . . not done so well. It’s currently battling an outbreak of positive cases centered on the Miami Marlins and Saint Louis Cardinals, which has forced it to postpone a number of games, raised questions about how well players and staff were following safety protocols, and placed the season itself in jeopardy.
That leaves the National Football League, which is scheduled to kick off its season on September 10, and may face the biggest mountain to climb of all the leagues.
Compared with teams in other sports, NFL teams have many more players to monitor, test, and keep away from potentially contagious situations. Recognizing that infections might require teams to make unexpected substitutions, Major League Baseball allowed 30 players on an active roster for this season, the NHL allowed 23 players on the active roster for this season, and the NBA allowed 17 players this season. Under the new collective-bargaining agreement, an NFL roster consists of 48 active players, with another twelve on each team’s practice squad, for a total of 60 players. When you factor in the dozens of coaches, trainers, equipment managers, team doctors, and other support staff employed by each team, you’ve got a lot of people to test and keep safe.
The early evidence suggests isolating players away from the rest of the world in a bubble works best, but that is more practical for the NBA and NHL than it may be for the NFL. The NBA only needed to find a site for the players, coaches, and support staff of 22 playoff-eligible teams. The NHL similarly left seven teams home, meaning they could split 24 teams evenly between Toronto and Edmonton. Even if each NFL team kept its traveling party to 100 people, the league would need to find a host city that could adequately house 3,200 players, coaches, and staff, as well as provide practice facilities for 32 teams — or two cities hosting 1,600 each, or four cities hosting 800 each, etc. The teams would need to operate in the bubble for a full 17 weeks (sixteen weeks and a bye week) plus the playoffs.
And that’s assuming players show up. Already as of this writing, 45 NFL players have announced their intention to opt out of the upcoming season. Some players are citing their own health issues, or the health issues of family members. Professional athletes are, by and large, young men in peak physical health, and the survival rates for that demographic are extremely high. But there’s always that chance of a player having lingering health issues because of a coronavirus infection. Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez recently said he will miss the rest of the season as he recovers from a heart-inflammation issue related to his bout with virus. Many athletes will look at Rodriguez’s experience and wonder if the same could happen to them.
As the Marlins demonstrated, one asymptomatic infected player can unwittingly spread the virus to a lot of his teammates, leading to a lot of positive tests and mandatory 14-day quarantines. Some NFL teams are exploring the idea of a “quarantine quarterback” — a quarterback who is on the roster but kept away from the rest of the team throughout the rest of the season, until an emergency. Without that emergency reserve kept away from the rest of the players, a team that has an outbreak in the quarterback room could be scanning the waiver wire for any healthy experienced quarterback to throw into a game, with almost no preparation. It’s easy to imagine other headaches, such as a kicker or punter or long snapper testing positive right before a game, making every field goal and extra point an adventure.
Thirty-two teams, 30 cities, 31 stadiums, 1,920 players, hundreds of coaches, trainers, and support staff, 124 referees, about a dozen or so chartered jets flying from one city to another each week . . . no one has ever tried to pull off something as complicated as this during a pandemic. Inevitably, something, somewhere will go wrong, and the league and teams will try their best to adjust on the fly. Even in normal times, the amount of money riding on a successful NFL season would be massive. When you add in the health of every player, coach, official, and staffer involved, the stakes become that much higher.
If the NFL manages to adapt, play through a season, and hold the Super Bowl in the winter, the entire sports world will marvel at the feat. But if the problems related to the pandemic force the season to be canceled or drastically altered, people will look back and conclude that the league should have realized what a mess it was getting into before the season started.