Why Major Sports Might Risk Comebacks During the Pandemic

Why Major Sports Might Risk Comebacks During the Pandemic

Once more, the pronouncements arrived in a torrent, though this time they were about rebirth rather than cancellation.

The N.B.A. was planning to start up again in late July. The N.H.L. announced a playoff tournament would take place through the summer. Major League Baseball was continuing negotiations with its players for a shortened season. The N.F.L. was moving toward opening training facilities. Soccer leagues for both men and women in North America were working toward finalizing plans for summer tournaments. Top-tier soccer leagues in England, Italy and Spain announced they would resume play in June.

After months filled with pessimism, hesitation, quiet planning and uncertainty about whether major sports would happen again in 2020, nearly every sport was preparing to come back, provided that work agreements with players could be negotiated and that public health authorities raised no objections.

Player representatives, league officials, lawyers and business consultants who work closely with them say the sudden shift resulted from a mix of dramatic changes few could foresee a month ago.

There has been an increase in the availability of testing, which has allowed some of the leagues, like many other businesses, to secure all the kits they believe they need. There were also far more mundane developments. Lisa Baird, commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League, said a final linchpin for her league’s plan was gaining approval from its insurance company.

“Science has advanced,” Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, wrote Wednesday in an email. “We know more than what we did before, and just speaking personally, my expectation is that science will continue to progress forward with therapies, testing and vaccines. I’m actually more optimistic about a vaccine coming early than what others expect.”

Credit…Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

Not everyone is as bullish as Cuban about the prospects for a vaccine, with most experts saying one won’t be widely available until at least early next year. And while the coronavirus curve has flattened and testing has increased both nationally and in the hardest-hit areas, it remains below a level that some epidemiologists say is needed to help mitigate future outbreaks.

But with reopening plans underway in all 50 states and with elected officials and the public anxious for business activity to resume, league officials had a growing sense that there would be minimal opposition if they moved ahead with plans.

Also, people who work closely with the leagues and team owners said, the financial consequences of not returning, potentially billions of dollars in losses across the leagues, made trying to come back vital.

“The economics of missing an entire season are just really, really bad,” said Irwin Raij, co-chairman of the sports law practice at O’Melveny & Myers, who is in constant contact with numerous team officials and owners.

Finally, while certain players have expressed concerns about their safety, especially those with compromised immune systems, most are like any other furloughed worker who wants to return to work and get paid, even if that means doing so without the usual comforts of the job.

“We are all going to have to be a little less judgmental,” said Alison Riske, a tennis player who participated in a four-player event last weekend on a private court in the backyard of an estate in Florida, without her usual support team. “We have to roll with the punches.”

J.C. Tretter, the Cleveland Browns center who is president of the N.F.L. Players Association, said the desire to get back was strong, so long as it could happen safely.

“We all love playing football,” Tretter said Friday from Cleveland. “We also love our teammates and our families.”


Credit…David Richard/Associated Press

Regardless of the dire financial consequences the leagues were facing, none would have been able to pursue plans to reopen without the promise of fast, widespread testing.

For two months, league officials could not talk seriously about acquiring the necessary tests without giving the impression that their needs were more important than the general public’s.

During the last two weeks, as testing became more widely available, even in the cities the virus has hit the hardest, such as New York, that concern has diminished. One top sports industry executive, who speaks regularly with the leaders of all the major sports, said the N.B.A. had already secured enough tests to screen all of the players as often as they want. An N.B.A. official, who asked not to be identified because the league’s comeback process is still evolving, confirmed that the testing hurdle had been largely cleared.

Baird said she had finally felt comfortable moving forward when medical experts signed off on an N.W.S.L. plan to test players before they arrive for the tournament in Utah, again when they show up, and then at least weekly during the monthlong competition.

Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the N.F.L., said the league was still working on its testing process and securing the necessary kits.

As the major leagues waited for the right moment, they watched NASCAR hold races, golf stage two charity events, European soccer return and tennis pull off a backyard round-robin.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.