Lichtenstein: Why Talk of Resuming Sports is Still Premature

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Among the many frustrations American sports fans face during this coronavirus pandemic is how so much is still unknown after nearly a month of mitigation. Never mind games returning, when can our lives get back to normal?

No one knows.

We once thought animals were impervious, then a Bronx Zoo tiger caught COVID-19 over the weekend from an infected zookeeper. What if the summer onslaught of mosquitoes can transmit the virus to us? Holy hell. No one really knows. 

Researchers have been conducting tests, but we still don’t know how long the virus can live on an Amazon package. More importantly, those who get the virus might end up feeling no effect, some symptoms, severe symptoms that require hospitalization, or die. We don’t know why. We do have records that show that the early warning of the virus posing little risk to the young and healthy proved to be incorrect.

What athlete, coach, referee, etc., down to the ancillary game worker, wants to play that kind of Russian Roulette with their own health and that of those close to them? That’s why resuming the games—even without fans—shouldn’t be in the foreseeable future.

Now, the team sports leagues have a fiduciary duty to plan for every scenario, and that includes one where the environment is safe to get back to business. There’s no urgency to cancel seasons just yet.

However, you should know the nearly insurmountable hurdles that these leagues face. It’s not enough to believe that their power will allow them to acquire any number of positive/negative tests necessary, even when the rest of society must wait.      

Two things must be true of all persons involved in every event for it to be declared safe: 1) They must all test negative that they’re not “shedding” the virus, and 2) They must all be tested for the antibodies to prove that they’re immune.   

In my research, including discussions with doctor friends, I found that no one can state for sure that a person who has recovered from COVID-19 isn’t still contagious, even if the antibodies are fighting off the infections within. For how long? We don’t know. You have to test everyone for positive/negative AND the presence of antibodies. How many players will pass both tests?

The best case scenario would be if everyone was immune. Remember, though, vaccine testing is still in Phase 1. Those test healthy humans.  Even the recent vaccine research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation isn’t promising anything before the end of this year.

In addition, while widespread blood testing will indicate to the leagues who is immune, I wouldn’t count on a high percentage. Players and coaches make enough money to afford bearing the cost of social distancing. Of course, our government doesn’t report positive cases by demographics, but the early consensus among experts is that the disease is taking a higher toll among the poor and minority communities, the ones who have to go to work at grocery stores or healthcare facilities. Once word got out that certain NBA players caught the virus, the league shut down and instructed strict quarantine protocols that aren’t practical for much of the general population. Other sports followed suit.

As I mentioned in a prior post, individual sports like golf and tennis and baseball have easier mechanisms to resume activities.  Contact team sports will obviously take longer. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman raised the possibility for the first time on Tuesday that this season might be cancelled. NBA commissioner Adam Silver made the same acknowledgement.

That leaves the NFL, where its Players Association just voted on the new collective bargaining agreement that risked their health by adding a 17th game to the regular season. There will be similar temptations to play through the pandemic.  Football players have the lowest minimum salary and shortest career spans among the four sports.

I can imagine that NFL owners would exert pressure on the players to get the games in. They don’t lose money — while much of the world is transitioning to streaming, NFL television programming remains indefatigable. The league is a behemoth. 

Everyone wants their football back—owners, fans, President Donald Trump. Here’s the problem: The league needs a complete buy-in from its employees. In your office, if Mike from accounting isn’t immune, there’s probably a way he can work from home. Not so for Tom Brady. Or a team’s entire offensive line. A 51.5% majority like the CBA vote won’t cut it in this case. If the league enforces it and deaths follow…

Maybe the NFL still has sway over the gods and this virus peters out by the summer. It’s unlikely, given the country’s size and its refusal to curtail travel. We’ve been behind the virus from the beginning.  We were promised widespread testing weeks ago, yet the centers in New Jersey typically run out of tests in 30 minutes. I think we’re about to be headed into the most impossible game of Whack-A-Mole ever created. But I could be wrong.

 Of course, the fall might bring something else to our nation besides football. A mutated coronavirus. We just don’t know.        

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1