Sports in the U.S. are coming back. MLB reopened its training camps on July 1, with opening day set for July 23 or 24. The NBA’s restart in Disney World is scheduled to resume on July 31, and the NHL is slowly progressing toward the start of its 24-team postseason taking place in Edmonton and Toronto and beginning in early August.
This may seem like good news. This is the first time since the autumn of 1918 — due to World War I and the influenza pandemic — that there was a stretch of at least 100 days without sports, according to The Big Lead. Sports are some of the biggest economic and entertainment drivers in the world, and the return of sports would boost peoples’ moods and show that the country can return to normal.
However, there’s still a lot that could go wrong. A premature return could end up being dangerous to the health of the personnel necessary for games to operate successfully.
As states begin to reopen, there have been massive spikes of COVID-19 across the nation, which has impacted the timelines of states planning to reopen. One of the hardest-hit states is Florida, where two MLB teams play and 22 NBA teams will travel for the league’s restart this month. Opening play in a pandemic hotspot could be dangerous to the safety of everybody involved and stymie leagues’ ability to start playing games.
Additionally, with so many people in close proximity, there could be spikes of the virus within the league, which would force the season to end. On July 3, MLB announced the results of its initial round of COVID-19 testing, with 38 of over three thousand tests coming back positive — around 1.2% — a figure that ESPN analyst Jeff Passan said was optimistic. However, as players begin to regroup, there may be many more positive test results.
The NBA’s initial testing results have been higher than MLB’s, with 25 players testing positive out of 351 samples, according to the Boston Globe. If the coronavirus infects dozens or hundreds of players within leagues, it may become too unsafe for play to continue.
"We won't be surprised when they first come down to Orlando if we have some additional players test potsitive," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said to Fortune Brainstorm Health. "What would be most concerning is once players enter this campus and then go through our quarantine period, then if they were to test positive or if we were to have any positive tests, we would know we would have an issue."
If there’s a surge of positive cases on one team, it would result in scheduling issues and cause leagues to reconsider the decision to play. On July 4, the Atlanta Braves announced that four of their players — including star first baseman Freddie Freeman — tested positive for COVID-19.
“What I’m most worried about is a cluster of cases on a team,” Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University’s Oxford College, said to Jayson Stark of The Athletic. “So if I’m seeing three or four players, and staff, testing positive in rapid succession, I’m very worried that I might have transmission within my team.”
There’s also the concern that personnel might not follow the coronavirus regulations that will be put in place once gameplay returns. The NBA, NHL and MLB have released elaborate plans that all players and staff will have to follow. However, there’s the possibility that some won’t follow the rules, which would harm all personnel’s health and safety.
"My confidence ain't great," Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard said to ESPN on July 1. "My confidence ain't great because you're telling me you're gonna have 22 teams full of players following all the rules? When we have 100 % freedom, everybody don't follow all the rules. I don't have much confidence. But hopefully it'll be handled to a point where we're not putting everybody at risk or in a dangerous position."
There’s also the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, which could cause many positive cases within the leagues and force another shutdown. In June, as MLB was arguing over how long the season should be, Anthony Fauci said that MLB should try to not play “too deep” into fall, when temperatures are colder and the virus is more likely to spread. A couple of days later, Fauci said that if the NFL wants to have a 2020 season it will need to play in a bubble format similar to the NBA.
Another potential issue is uncertainty of who may or may not have contracted the coronavirus. The Annals of Internal Medicine has reported that 40-45% of cases are asymptomatic, making it difficult to determine if someone has the virus based on physical symptoms. In addition, if the leagues plan to test people multiple times a week, there will be thousands of cases going into labs every day. As a result, there could be a backlog and a lengthy delay.
Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle said to The Athletic that he’s had multiple tests that have taken over two days to get the results. Lengthy delays combined with asymptomatic cases means that someone could infect others with the virus for a few days without being aware of it and cause a massive spike.
“As I sit here talking to you guys, I still don’t have my test results from Friday’s test,” Doolittle said to the media on July 5. “I got tested again this morning without knowing the results of my test from Friday. So we gotta clean that up, right?”
The scheduled return of sports initially sounds appealing, especially after four months of quarantine and social distancing. However, in the few weeks prior to games supposedly returning, there’s still a lot up in the air that could force sports to be postponed again. If leagues can adequately prepare for concerns and enforce the restrictions that are necessary for sports to operate, then athletics will return successfully for an exciting year.
Contact Joshua Gingrich at email@example.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.