In the next couple of weeks Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are set to start or resume their 2020 seasons. The NFL plans to open training camps within the next ten days. And while the PGA Tour has been back on the schedule for just over a month, they said this week they’d play with no fans for the rest of the year.
The NFL also announced that no jersey exchanges would be allowed after games this fall. When I heard that I wondered, “Really?” Football is a game played with full contact, guys piling on each other over sixty minutes. But they can’t exchange jerseys after the game? That sounds silly.
“It is,” said Dr. Brian Turrisi, a pulmonologist who spent 40 years studying and treating viruses in Washington D.C.. Turrisi practiced at various hospitals including the ones at Georgetown and George Washington universities. “If the league wanted to worry about something, they’d worry about passing the virus under the circumstances of the playing of the game.”
Turrisi spent much of his career in ICU’s treating patients with respiratory ailments and is puzzled why sports are so concerned about their players contracting Covid-19.
“In the past six months there’s been a big learning curve about this virus,” he said. “The vast majority of people very sick or dying are over 50 and the larger group is over 70. Pro sports are played by people younger than forty.”
“It’s at the level we see with the common flu with the same demographic group,” he added. “When we confine this to young people who play sports, they’re the healthiest of all, so their death rate is near zero.”
Turisi’s thoughts are backed up by recent happenings on the PGA Tour. Several players have tested positive for the virus but have gotten better. Same with the Clemson football team where nearly forty players have tested positive with “no serious cases” according to their sports information office.
“No worse than if they had the common cold,” Turrisi explained.
Part of the problem with making decisions about public safety and safety in sports is the lack of reliable data. Scientific studies are showing that the infection rate in the general population is much higher than originally thought. Testing now available is revealing positive results with no symptoms. And the number of fatalities, from a percentage standpoint, is substantially lower than originally predicted. It’s hard to get facts not colored by some political agenda.
“We should be doing everything we can to have sports out there. It’s important,” said Turrisi, who crossed paths with Dr. Anthony Fauci during his career in D.C., of the need for psychological as well as physical health.
“When we talk about people’s health, we have to talk about their psychological health. Part of living in this society is waking up and saying, ‘I want to go to a sporting event this weekend.’ Drug use, suicide, domestic abuse all are up because people haven’t been able to live their normal lives.”
While the PGA Tour is traveling from city to city with strict guidelines about health qualifications to play, the NBA is staying in one place, creating a campus “bubble” in Orlando to play their games. Still, players have tested positive and some have left the bubble to possibly be exposed. Originally, the NBA tested 302 players with 16 testing positive.
“It’s not alarming based on what we’re seeing in the broader population,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Time. “In many ways, it was somewhat predictable. Where I’m most relieved … is that among those 16 positive tests, there are no severe cases.”
Still, Silver says the league will stop playing if they have “a lot of cases.” He hasn’t quantified what that number might be but added; “It’s never ‘full steam no matter what.'”
Several NBA players have already opted out of playing in Orlando. The league and MLB are giving players a chance to ‘opt out’ of playing this year.
Baseball has had several stars already say they’re not playing in 2020. Buster Posey, Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross, and David Price among others. Some citing “personal reasons,” others for family concerns:: Parents with preexisting conditions, pregnancy or out of an abundance of caution for their children.
With a short, 60-game season, the possibility of an entire team testing positive and not playing puts the whole MLB plan in jeopardy.
“I think the way that I think about it is in the vein of competitive integrity, in a 60-game season,” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said this week in a radio interview. .
“If we have a team or two that’s really decimated with a number of people who had the virus and can’t play for any significant period of time, it could have a real impact on the competition and we’d have to think very, very hard about what we’re doing.”
Playing the games in a bubble is one thing, having fans attend is something totally different. The Jaguars announced this week that they’d allow twenty-five percent capacity in the stadium at their home games this fall.
“That’s a guess,” Dr. Turrisi theorized. “Is 30% worse than 25%? Open sporting events and let people come. People in the vulnerable population shouldn’t go. It’s about personal responsibility.”
And what’s the turning point? Is the vaccine the panacea that will change how sports are played and how fans can attend? Most scientists believe it is not the end-all, be-all answer. For some people it won’t work and the availability worldwide is not in the near future.
“We know the flu better than anything else,” Dr. Turrisi explained. “All viruses have a weird way they can auto mutate. The virus wants to infect people but not kill off everybody. With he Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919, a hundred million people died worldwide. That flu just kind of petered out. It stopped killing people.”
Will there be a turning point where sports and sporting events look like they used to?
“This virus isn’t coming out six months from now and hold up a big sign that says ‘I’m done,’ Dr. Turrisi added. “What’s going to turn the tide when we learn how to live with this? It’s a psychological problem. We’ve created a fear of something that has proven to not be that scary from a scientific standpoint.”
“There’s a problem with social media and news coverage. Why did this happen? Social media makes information travel faster before the actual facts come out. So all kinds of bad and false information got out there early. And all of the models were wrong. And wrong by an exponential factor. So people got very scared early on.”