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Bursting the Bubble: Why Sports Aren't Coming Back Soon

The NBA, NFL and MLB are dreaming up ways to play amid a pandemic, with talk of isolating players in Arizona or Las Vegas or maybe on the moon. It all sounds great, until you talk to people who actually know science.

The proposals multiply almost as fast as the coronavirus: The NHL can play in North Dakota! The NBA can play on a cruise ship! MLB can play in a biodome! The NFL can play in its stadiums, with 70,000 fans packed in!

These are fun thought experiments, at least as good a way to spend time in isolation as watching Tiger King. And everyone wants to believe we will be buying peanuts and Cracker Jack this summer. But fans deserve a reality check: According to the experts—medical experts, not the money-making experts in league offices—we will not have sports any time soon. And when we do, we will not attend the games.

Most of these ideas are essentially the same: The players live in quarantine, shuttling from the hotel to the stadium, for the duration of the season. They undergo daily COVID-19 tests. They bring joy to a terrified country. That seems reasonable on the surface. But look closer.

First, let’s do away with the suggestion, put forth by President Donald Trump, that football season could go on as normal, beginning on time in September and unfolding in front of crowded stadiums.

"We will not have sporting events with fans until we have a vaccine," says Zach Binney, a PhD in epidemiology who wrote his dissertation on injuries in the NFL and now teaches at Emory. Barring a medical miracle, the process of developing and widely distributing a vaccine is likely to take 12 to 18 months.

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Until the vast majority of the population is immune to COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, any gathering as large as an NFL game risks setting off a biological bomb. That may sound like hyperbole, but that's the exact phrase a doctor in Bergamo, Italy’s hardest hit city, used to describe a Feb. 19 soccer match between hometown Atalanta and Spain’s Valencia, which super-charged the virus’s spread.

O.K., but what about empty stadiums?

“The idea of a quarantined sports league that can still go on sounds really good in theory,” says Binney. “But it’s a lot harder to pull off in practice than most people appreciate.”

Conversations with experts painted a picture of what exactly it would take to make these sports vacuums a reality. Before any of this can begin, every person who would have access to the facilities will need to be isolated separately for two weeks to ensure that no infection could enter. That’s players and coaches, athletic trainers and interpreters, reporters and broadcasters, plus housekeeping and security personnel. No one can come in or out. Food will have to be delivered. Hotel and stadium employees will have to be paid enough to compensate for their time away from their families. Everyone onsite will have to be tested multiple times during this initial period.

That brings us to the question of testing. At the moment, screening is scarce enough that many healthcare facilities cannot even clear their employees. Asymptomatic professional athletes are not high on anyone’s priority list. But here Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington, offers some hope. Testing is not technologically difficult, he says. There are supply chain issues—we will eventually run out of the long Q-tips required for the nasopharyngeal swab, for example—and questions of bureaucracy, but he is cautiously optimistic that we might have ubiquitous COVID-19 testing by the end of May.

All right, so the 14-day period is over and everyone has tested negative at least twice. Now they are allowed to begin spending time around one another—but not too much time. If one person gets it, he or she will begin spreading it immediately, so everyone will have to continue practicing social distancing. That probably means using a new ball for each play. It probably means seating players in stands rather than on benches or in dugouts. It certainly means banning high-fives.

All personnel must continue to be tested daily. We will be unlikely to have enough rapid testing by then, so they will probably have to settle for the tests that take several hours to produce results. That means the testing will probably run a day behind.

Any major sporting event hires ambulances, stocked with EMTs, to idle outside in case of injury. If a player needs treatment by outside medical personnel, even just for a sprained ankle, he or she has left the secure area and will need to isolate for 14 days before returning to it. And, of course, medical resources need to be abundant enough that society can afford to have ambulances and EMTs on call for games, plus doctors and nurses—clad in currently-scarce protective equipment—who can tend to sports injuries.

Minor leagues cannot afford to play to empty stadiums, so you also need a taxi squad of players practicing in isolation in case someone gets hurt. And because players recognize that a championship won under these circumstances will be seen as tainted, expect them to be less likely to play through injury.

After each game, everyone will need to be transported back to the hotel. If the NBA plays in Las Vegas, as has been proposed, the personnel might be able to walk from the court to their rooms. If MLB plays at spring training sites in Arizona, as it is considering, the league will have to hire bus drivers—who will, of course, also have to be isolated. And then once they are back in their rooms, every person involved will have to follow rules. You can’t take your kids to the park. You can’t run to the grocery store. You can’t invite your Bumble match up to your room. These are humans, so the leagues would surely require insurance: That means security personnel (another group that would need to isolate) or invasive cell phone tracking (good luck getting that by the players’ union). If your wife gives birth or your father dies of cancer and you want to be there, that’s another 14-day reentry period.

And ethically, Bergstrom says, “you need informed consent.” That means everyone has to opt in and no one’s paycheck can hang in the balance.

Fine. So no one touches anyone else or goes anywhere. Experts agree that if everything goes perfectly, the leagues could theoretically pull this off. Baseball has the advantage of little in-game contact between players. Basketball and hockey have the advantage of being able to skip ahead to the playoffs and eliminate teams quickly. Football has the advantage of time. Individual sports such as golf and tennis might have the best chance of all, given the smaller number of participants and relative ease of keeping them separate.

But there are a million ways the Jenga stack could fall: What if the person delivering groceries to the biodome walks by someone who coughs on the lettuce and a week later, a player tests positive? Is there an option other than shutting down the whole operation for 14 days?

“No,” says Bergstrom.

And that’s really the end of the conversation. Even if we can start this, we almost certainly can’t finish it. Just look at South Korea and Japan, which both believed they had the outbreak under control and have since pushed back the start dates of their professional baseball seasons. In response to ESPN's reporting on the MLB biodome scenario this week, former Medicare and Medicaid head Andy Slavitt tweeted, “I’m as big a sports fan as anybody, but this is reckless. Leagues need to follow the science & do the right thing.”

The leagues know how farfetched their ideas are. So do the players’ unions. They continue to explore options because they would be remiss not to. But fans should understand how unlikely this all is.

No one wants to acknowledge how far we are from ordinary life, says Kimberley Miner, a professor at the University of Maine who develops risk assessment for the U.S. Army. “It’s hard to stomach a lot of this information, so it’s not being widely shared,” she explains.

But the reality is that even after we pass the initial peak of infection, the virus is still active. We have already lost more than 16,000 Americans to this disease. Bringing back sports soon would give people a reason to stay inside, a reason to feel hopeful. It would probably also cost more lives.

“If people just decide to let it burn in most areas and we do lose a couple million people it’d probably be over by the fall,” says Binney. “You’d have football. You’d also have two million dead people. And let’s talk about that number. We’re really bad at dealing with big numbers. That is a Super Bowl blown up by terrorists, killing every single person in the building, 24 times in six months. It’s 9/11 every day for 18 months. What freedoms have we given up, what wars have we fought, what blood have we shed, what money have we spent in the interest of stopping one more 9/11? This is 9/11 every day for 18 months.”

The peanuts and Cracker Jack will be waiting for us when sports are ready to come back. Only the virus will determine when that is.