Professional sports leagues ‘kidding themselves’ in planning resumption of play

Infectious diseases experts caution that plans for professional sports leagues to resume play, even without fans, are fraught with potential risks.

Toronto Raptors championship parade 2019.

The National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are examining plans to resume or start their seasons, all without fans in attendance. The NHL is considering up to eight or nine hub cities that will host games. The idea is to spread out the number of people in one particular location. The NBA has opened talks with the Walt Disney Co. to host all games, practices, and housing for players and staffers at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando.  MLB is in discussions with its players’ union to resume play around July 4 and has issued a 67-page manual on safety, outlining issues such as testing, physical distancing, and risk mitigation.

While restarting play will satisfy many fans, medical experts say ensuring safety will be difficult.

“In the ideal situation, everyone would be isolated from each other, including each member of a team,” says Dr. Alon Vaisman, infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network. “They are just kidding themselves if they think they can do this.”

Vaisman equated a potential infection within a sports team to “dropping a cup of red paint into water and watching it spread.” He added that even starting a new season in the fall may be wishful thinking. “There is no indication it could be any better in the fall than now,” he says.

Dr. Janine McCready, Michael Garron Hospital infectious disease specialist, agrees. “Knowing what we do about this virus, I don’t see it being markedly better by then,” she says.

Of the MLB plan, Diana Zuckerman, president of the U.S. National Center for Health Research and a Washington Nationals season ticket holder, told the Washington Post, “You’d end up with a lot of infected players and other personnel. If it isn’t done right, not only would people get sick and potentially die, but it would shut down the season. I don’t see a way around it. It would be a miracle if they followed those instructions and it didn’t end up infecting people.”

Coronavirus aside, sports teams are known to be a classic breeding ground for the spread of infectious diseases. Even prior to this pandemic, teams were advised to practice thorough hand-washing, not share water bottles, equipment or towels, and meticulously clean all shared surfaces.

Because of the close contact during play and in locker rooms, both bacterial and viral infections can be easily transmitted between players. They can also be transmitted via surfaces, shared towels, or communal use of equipment. Travel is also known to exacerbate infectious spread between teams.

In recent years, there have been several methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, bacterial outbreaks in the NFL. Mumps outbreaks have famously plagued the NHL.

Sports teams were not spared during the Spanish flu pandemic either.  The 1919 Stanley Cup playoffs were cancelled after five games due to a flu outbreak. And despite warnings from health officials, the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs went on as planned. To this day, experts believe this fuelled the pandemic, killing more than 4,800 Bostonians alone by the end of that year. Even Babe Ruth himself was rumoured to have come down with the viral infection.

Any re-opening plans will need significant safeguards and measures put in place by the teams, regardless of whether fans are present or not. According to McReady and Vaisman, there will have to be total buy-in from NHL players on maintaining physical distancing. Before games are even played, the leagues need to make sure that everyone is tested to prevent the disease from spreading in hub cities.

The league will need to have an abundance of testing available for players and staff, stadium personnel and anyone else who may be involved in the games. The tests may need to be daily until the completion of the season and playoffs.

Testing will also have to include anyone who may come into contact with an athlete or team member, including hotel and restaurant employees, bus drivers who take the players to a game, etc.

If someone does test positive, it is imperative that the player self-isolate immediately and anyone who that player has been in contact with is tested, says McCready.

“I would isolate the person and then identify and test who was closest to the person to determine if other people have already been transmitted to – like the immediate players and people who they have been in contact with. If it was a member of one team, you may want to delay their games until people test negative or after five to 10 days.”

This, of course, raises the question of what happens to games if a player on a club tests positive. In Germany, where action resumed recently with players wearing masks while sitting spaced out on the benches, second-division Bundesliga clubs Dynamo Dresden and Erzgebirge Aue were forced to put their squads in quarantine for two weeks after players and a staff member tested positive. “Due to the quarantine measures, (we) will not be able to travel to Lower Saxony for the away game on match day 26 as planned,” the Dresden club announced on May 10. If even a few players across a league test positive, it can grind a sports season to an immediate halt.

Beyond the arena or stadium, there are several other challenges: the effect of travel restrictions, including about 17 per cent of NHL players currently self-isolating overseas; determining whether players should be advised to isolate from their families; advising players to relocate to hub cities to minimize travel and so on.

Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, arguably baseball’s best player for several seasons now, worries he may have to miss the birth of his first child in August if he is forced to remain separated from his family.

“What am I going to do when (my wife) goes into labour? Am I going to have to quarantine for two weeks after I come back? Obviously, I can’t miss that birth of our first child,” Trout said recently.

Fans are desperate for sports to return, especially the NHL which nearly two-thirds of Canadians say they miss the most. Even though games would likely be played without spectators present, 29 per cent of fans say restarting the season is a great idea while an additional 59 per cent say it is fine, better than nothing.  

But while fans may want sports to come back quickly, there are numerous obstacles to overcome.