Playing Professional Sports During a Pandemic: Success or Disaster?

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s favorite pastime refused to let its audience down. The MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL have all continued their seasons as COVID-19 surges through our country. Considering sports aren’t the most socially distanced activity and mask wearing isn’t common during heavy exercise, the sports comeback seemed like a recipe for disaster. Let’s take a look at some of the protective measures these organizations took to minimize COVID-19 risk, and how well they actually worked.

The nature of the MLB and NHL allows for them to attempt some social distancing. MLB players are farther than six feet away from each other at most times, and NHL players aren’t always up against each other. But, the NBA and NFL? You can’t even play without breathing down each other’s necks.

Now for some of the implemented measures. First, as the sole constant effort, testing for COVID-19 was made at least a weekly occurrence for all players and staff. This allows for players to quarantine as soon as possible to prevent the spread. Many sports also wouldn’t allow their players to return until they tested negative for the virus multiple times, just to be extra safe.

But, some other actions didn’t last long. At the live events, fans were the first to go, a move made by all sports. Although it was good while it lasted, the MLB and NFL have had fans return (many seen not wearing masks and little social distancing).

Spitting, finger licking, and hand interactions were also a no-brainer to restrict. At first, “footshakes” and elbow bumps replaced game celebrations. Many MLB players even removed the classic throw around the diamond in order to minimize the sharing of balls. But, most players resumed all these problematic actions after only a few weeks of trying.

One thing that at least the NBA and NHL can be given a lot of credit for is their implementation of the “bubble.” The bubble refers to the specified areas that only players and essential staff are allowed in for the season. These bubbles were located in Disney World for the NBA and Toronto and Edmonton for the NHL, and included everything from professional chefs to personal barbers. Once the season gets on a roll, no one new comes in, and no one comes out. This wonderful strategy allows for players to avoid the high COVID-19 risk of being out in public. It’s success has been unparalleled, though. The MLB and NFL, both of which did not implement a bubble (MLB during the regular season), had numerous delays and postponements of games due to excessive positive COVID-19 tests, with some teams not even getting to play a full season’s worth of games.

Some may consider all these protocols unnecessary: if players are getting tested daily, why can’t they high five each other or hang out in public per usual? Unfortunately, false-negative and asymptomatic cases are a real threat. And if one of those COVID-19-positive players sneaks through the cracks, it only takes a couple of close interactions for the entire league to get off track.

Also, rules and regulations are only effective when they’re followed. Like previously mentioned, many of the players couldn’t resist returning the physical touch aspects of the game. Fans returned eventually. Even the bubble method wasn’t 100% effective: Lou Williams, an NBA player for the Los Angeles Clippers, left the bubble reasonably for a funeral, but ended up being seen in public at a strip club later in his trip and was quarantined as a result. 

Not only are these dropped and broken rules and safety measures bad for the sport as a whole, but for the country as well. Many children, teens, and even adults look to sports for role models; if they see professional players hanging out in public with no social distancing or disregarding masks, fans are likely to do the same. These influential figures sometimes don’t realize how much they regulate the public response to events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, the reintroduction of professional sports was neither a success nor a disaster. It wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but also wasn’t the ideal situation. Some leagues, like the NBA, definitely handled the transition better than others, and showcased the proper response. The other major sports leagues did enough to keep their players and staff safe, but definitely could’ve done more, especially considering the actions of the individual players. Again, the sports world refuses to stop for long. Whether it’s the right decision or not, professional sports found their place in this pandemic.