Commentary: As Sports Restart, Prepare to Keep Score of Positive Tests

Mike Hogan

As sports begin to resume to some sort of action – whether it be games or training camps – coronavirus testing programs for players, coaches and others also will begin.

In turn, there will be positive tests. That is nearly inevitable.

And Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, says we shouldn’t be surprised.

“You can't assume that everybody is negative from beginning to end. That's unrealistic,” he said.

Yet, many ridiculously have assumed exactly that already.

Over the last several weeks, more and more athletes have tested positive for the disease at both the professional and collegiate level of sport.

A number of NCAA Division I institutions across the country have reopened their facilities to athletes. Testing has been required for athletes who elected to return for voluntary and individual workouts. Most notably, more than 30 Clemson football players tested positive for COVID-19, and most reported being asymptomatic or have already recovered. Alabama, LSU, Florida and student-athletes at a growing list of other schools have tested positive too.

Under the professional COVID-19 spotlight, which the NFL will soon be on, players in the MLB, NBA and NHL have tested positive for the disease.

This week, MLB teams commenced with summer camp at their home ballparks. Upon returning to action, players were required to be tested. To date, more than 40 players and staff members have tested positive, and that number, of course, is expected to grow.

The NBA plans to restart its season at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, on July 30. Meanwhile, the NHL plans to restart its season in Canada. The league will operate in similar circumstances with two hub cities. Eastern Conference teams will play in Toronto; Western Conference teams will play in Edmonton. Both leagues have also seen a number of players test positive already. Those numbers too are expected to grow in the coming weeks.

The NFL hasn’t seen a ton of players test positive yet because the league hasn’t yet implemented a mass-testing program. However, a few players and coaches are known to have contracted COVID-19 since March.

Saints head coach Sean Payton tested positive in March, as did Denver Broncos defensive end Von Miller. Both recovered. One member of the San Francisco 49ers tested positive for the disease after a group workout in Nashville.

Scroll through social media after the news breaks, and the negative thoughts from fans swirl with the summer wind.

But, why? We should understand by now that COVID-19 knows no boundaries. What makes an athlete testing positive for the disease different from the average person? After all, nobody is immune.

One could argue that athletes have exposed themselves more than others. In the NFL’s case, many players have conducted training in groups. Maybe colleges jumped the gun on allowing student-athletes back to campus. The same could be said about the MLB opening up spring training facilities. It’s also possible that some athletes acted carelessly while away from training facilities. A few LSU student-athletes had to quarantine for 14 days after visiting Baton Rouge-area bars that had ties to COVID-19 outbreaks.

But those arguments are mostly moot when looking at the grand scheme of things.

As more businesses begin to reopen, many in the United States have ignored social distancing and other precautions too. Look no further than Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states that have experienced spikes in recent weeks. Packed bars, beaches and restaurants have most definitely played a role. Or, if you’d like, rewind to Memorial Day weekend. At Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, hundreds gathered at an establishment for a pool party. No social distancing there, of course. One party goer tested positive shortly after. Presumably, others did too.

With the July 4 holiday weekend, concern is mounting about the surge becoming even worse.

As sports creep their way back, fans shouldn’t be dumbfounded by positive tests. Plans will be put into place to detect them.

On the other hand, athletes must hold each other accountable and act responsibly as activity begins again. Athletes, just like everyone else, should do their best to mitigate risk away from facilities. Mask wearing, social distancing, good hand hygiene and other simple precautions will serve everyone well.

“What you should have is a plan in place to deal with that and move on,” Schaffner said. “You may have to quarantine the players, do some contact tracing and quarantine those people, test them very quickly to see how many of them turn positive and return them as quickly as possible.

“It’s not so much on the field, it’s off of the field. Do they stay away from people? Are they sheltering in place? Do they wear masks when they’re out and about? Are they practicing good hand hygiene?”

Plans and precautions have not yet been made clear by the NFL, but they will be sooner rather than later. As more MLB, NBA and NHL players test positive in the coming weeks, NFL fans should take warning. It’s going to happen.

With mass-testing will come athletes and coaches who test positive. It will be a part of the process. Maybe a lot, maybe few. The news shouldn’t be surprising.