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How Do You Play Sports In The Middle Of A Pandemic?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Cases of COVID-19 are spiking in places across the U.S. that weren’t hit hard initially. Some areas that had reopened are shutting down bars and reducing capacity in restaurants. People are throwing tantrums in grocery stores when asked to put on masks. And in the middle of all of that … we’re trying to bring back sports.

American sports leagues are just now coming out of their coronavirus hibernation, with some already started and some finalizing their schedules for play. They’re ramping up testing of their players, so every day, it seems like there’s another announcement of a team full of athletes afflicted by the coronavirus. Players (and staff) across MLB, the NBA and college athletics have tested positive. The Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League had to pull out of the Challenge Cup tournament after several positive tests. And golfers have withdrawn from PGA Tour events two weeks in a row after testing positive — and that’s not even counting caddies.

We wanted to understand these headlines better, so we brought together two science journalists and two sports journalists to see if we could figure out what this all means for the safety of the athletes and the reality of the leagues’ returns. Maggie Koerth and Kaleigh Rogers have been covering the science and politics of the novel coronavirus since the earliest days of the pandemic, while Neil Paine has been examining its effects on the world of sports.

So let’s dig in. Should we be surprised that athletes have been struck with the virus, given what we know about the prevalence of cases in the general, nonathlete population?

maggie (Maggie Koerth, senior science writer): I don’t think it’s surprising that a bunch of people who share a locker room and run around breathing heavily on each other might contract a virus from one another.

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, science and politics reporter): Exactly. We know that the virus spreads from prolonged, close contact. Sports are a natural hot spot. Even though the actual sports-ing often takes place outdoors, in the open air, there’s enough time spent close together inside that viral spread is inevitable. Social distancing is effective, but team sports are the opposite of social distancing.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): There are also a LOT of pro athletes in these leagues. Last year, 1,410 players played at least one Major League Baseball game.

The NFL has even more players. And the NBA and WNBA still number in the many hundreds. So it was inevitable that some — or even many — players would come back with positive tests as they were eased into these bubbles, right? (This is before we even get into the many, many college players out there.)

kaleigh: And most of them have not yet been exposed. A Stanford study of MLB employees that came out in May found less than 1 percent had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.

sara.ziegler: The point about sports being the opposite of social distancing is a good one. But these positive tests are coming before a lot of the play has even started! These athletes were theoretically just living their lives as normal people.

kaleigh: Sara, that’s a good point and also gets at a big question mark when it comes to plans to resume play: What rules will be placed on athletes off the field? I know the MLB plan, at least, is relying on just asking athletes to “exercise care.”

neil: Saying “exercise care” seems like a big ask from a group of people who are young and probably feel an extra level of invincibility over the average person (seeing as they’ve basically never run into physical limitations before in their lives, up until this).

kaleigh: And Neil, that’s not even mentioning college athletes who, along with being young and, y’know, in college, also have other obligations like class to contend with.

neil: LOL, class.

kaleigh: Surely sometimes, right?

neil: (For sure.)

maggie: Those underwater baskets aren’t gonna weave themselves.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

maggie: And we haven’t even added the spectators to the equation either. West Virginia University recently did a study where they looked at influenza data between 1962 and 2016 and found that you can actually see an increase in flu mortality in a city that’s correlated with bringing in a new sports franchise.

Like, sports teams make flu season deaths rise in those cities by between 4 and 24 percent. Bring in a new team and that flu season (and every one after it) had more deaths.

sara.ziegler: Oh, wow! That does not make me feel great about all the non-pandemic games I’ve attended.

maggie: That’s building on previous research that had found making it to the Super Bowl (i.e., extending the football season further into peak flu season and increasing time fans spent watching football together, even inside their own houses) increased flu mortality in a team’s home city by 18 percent among people over the age of 65.

neil: That’s incredible. Something we never really think about at all.

(Although one takeaway from this whole thing is how underappreciated the risk of the flu is anyway.)

maggie: Now seems like a nice time to plug flu shots. Get your flu shot this fall, people.

sara.ziegler: It seems like almost all of the athlete cases in this round of testing have been asymptomatic — or, at least, we’re not hearing of many more serious cases, like we did with athletes earlier on in the pandemic. Does that surprise any of you?

kaleigh: I think some of that speaks to the high level of physical health that many athletes have to maintain. If you’re already in peak shape, it’s not shocking that you’re experiencing a less severe infection.

maggie: That’s not wildly surprising to me, either, given what we know about how this virus operates. Younger people generally have less severe infection. And even though there are exceptions to that, it’s still generally true.

kaleigh: Yeah, Maggie, those exceptions are still pretty rare.

neil: Will the relatively mild cases among athletes be the saving grace for bringing sports back? Or are we just deluding ourselves and a severe case is inevitable?

kaleigh: Neil and Sara, you’d have an answer for this: Is there any concern about athletes and more severe cases of COVID? I can’t imagine being intubated is something anyone who relies on their body for a living wants to experience.

Isn’t there also a financial risk to putting players’ health on the line?

neil: There’s definitely been negotiations to increase the amount of insurance for NBA players.

(And it won’t be held against NBA players if they choose not to play the rest of the season.)

kaleigh: Severe cases in young, otherwise healthy people are rare, but not unheard of. And there are lots of reports of lingering impacts from more serious infections.

sara.ziegler: And there have been some more serious cases among athletes. Von Miller of the Denver Broncos was sick this spring, and he’s been worried about the damage to his lungs. There’s just so much we don’t know about the long-term effects of the virus.

maggie: I’ve also been thinking about all the stories I’ve read where “mild” nonhospitalized infections were still … not a walk in the park.

kaleigh: Totally, Maggie! Often, “mild” only means “anything less than needing a respirator,” which is a pretty broad range of severity.

maggie: I’m waiting for a severe case in a coach, myself. Or owners.

kaleigh: I think we also need to consider that the people who make sports happen aren’t only athletes in the prime of their life.

maggie: Trainers. Staff. There’s lots of people who work with those athletes who are not 24-year-old demigods.

kaleigh: And then there’s the fact that if they’re getting sick, they could be spreading the virus to their families and the wider community.

A young, healthy person getting a mild or asymptomatic case and recovering has never been what we’ve been trying to avoid.

maggie: Exactly.

sara.ziegler: Right. The bubbles aren’t needed just to keep people inside of them safe — they’re needed to keep everyone outside of them safe, too!

neil: I guess that’s a big argument in favor of the “bubble” approach, compared with the leagues that are doing it in a less structured way.

maggie: Bubbles definitely make a lot of sense. The YMCA has reported (although this isn’t independently confirmed data or anything) that they’ve had no outbreak clusters associated with their childcare centers … and that’s partly because they’ve been keeping little kids in nine-kid-plus-teacher bubbles that don’t interact with other bubbles at the center.

But bubbles are harder for sports teams, I think, when, you know, the bubbles have to play one another on the field or court.

sara.ziegler: Bubbles bumping into each other, left and right.

maggie: Maybe it’s time for intramural sports? Players from the same team just play each other all season.

sara.ziegler: I guess that’s sort of the idea with the NBA/WNBA — it’s just one very large intramural tournament.

kaleigh: One thing that stands out to me about the plans to reopen are the efforts to test very frequently. This will surely help curb the spread somewhat by allowing teams to identify and isolate actively infectious individuals. And it can help avoid false negatives, because even mild cases are usually detectable if tested in the first five to seven days of infection, according to one expert at UCLA. But testing is not a panacea. Some of the spread will have already happened by the time someone tests positive. And that’s where community spread becomes more concerning.

sara.ziegler: Can that regular testing tell us anything about the virus itself that we don’t know from the much more irregular testing going on among all of us regular folk?

kaleigh: Well, one thing I’m learning from reporting I’m doing for a story (stay tuned!) is that testing is only part of the equation. There is a lot of useful data we can get from testing, including historical data we can study when this is all over, but in terms of controlling the active outbreak, it’s only half of the answer. Without proper containment and contact tracing, testing can only do so much.

maggie: I would certainly be interested in getting my hands on this data later, after the leagues have had a longer period of testing, and seeing how changes in positives correlate with different behaviors by the team members

neil: With player testing, is it valuable because it’s everyone in a population pool (so less bias) … or less valuable because that population is heavily biased towards the young and very fit?

kaleigh: Yes, Neil.

sara.ziegler: LOL

kaleigh: In the MLB antibody testing study, for example, the sample was 60 percent male and 80 percent white.

maggie: If you have this population you’re testing regularly, over and over, that might tell us something about which behaviors really are more or less risky.

neil: Good point, Maggie — the time-series aspect of it is probably the most valuable part.

maggie: But, of course, that won’t really be available for a while.

It will be interesting in retrospect, though! And given that COVID-19 is probably not just going to go away any time soon … useful in the long term.

kaleigh: We’ve learned a lot in the course of this pandemic from “natural experiments.” I think about that choir group that met for practice and taught us so much about just how this virus spreads.

neil: One thing is for sure: Researchers love anything that looks like a natural experiment!

So I bet this data shows up in a lot of papers eventually.

kaleigh: To me, the bigger question (especially as a non-sports person) is: Is any of this necessary? We’re making a big effort to take something that is, quite simply, not essential and make it safe enough to bring back during a pandemic.The best course of action would be to just wait it out, but I realize there is a lot of money and emotion on the line.

maggie: Lots and lots of money.

neil: Yeah. I think there’s the rush to feel a sense of “normalcy” again, but mainly it’s money.

maggie: Let’s not discount the way that lots and lots of money represents a return to normalcy, too. Like, sports is a whole damn economy. The feeling of normalcy people are seeking from it is both symbolic and practical.

neil: We’ve talked often about how the losses might be painful for leagues in the short term but they’re at least manageable if they finish the season. But if leagues start to default on these TV contracts promising playoff games, it could have long-lasting consequences.

kaleigh: That’s really the tension for a lot of our reopening decisions: the desire (and need) to reopen the economy versus the need to control this pandemic.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, the issues around sports restarting are the same issues that the entire economy faces.

maggie: And downstream businesses, from restaurants to transportation companies to, heck, our colleagues over at ESPN.

kaleigh: And our colleagues here at FiveThirtyEight! (Though you guys have been doing great work in the absence of any actual sports.)

neil: Hah, yep. (Thank you!)

kaleigh: I can’t imagine what I would do if science and politics just … stopped.

sara.ziegler: It’s been a pretty strange thing, that’s for sure.

maggie: Yeah, sorry, Neil. You guys are doing amazing. My head was just on those TV contracts.

neil: One of our colleagues said sports are the toy aisle of the journalism store, which is kind of true. And it’s also true that sports are a luxury a functioning country gets to have.

Are we that right now? Probably not. 😬

sara.ziegler: We’re lucky here that we can cover other stuff at FiveThirtyEight. (Hello, economics!) But sports-specific websites are really struggling, and I think that’s been a factor in the coverage of sports returning.

I’m not surprised that people whose livelihoods are tied to sports want them back right away.

neil: And that includes the players too!

sara.ziegler: For sure.

maggie: America is in a weird situation of maybe having more culture/money in sports than pretty much any other place … AND having less control over its COVID outbreak than any other place.

kaleigh: But as we saw with Novak Djokovic’s tournament, even trying to bring back sports in areas where COVID cases have dipped doesn’t guarantee immunity.

neil: Of course, it didn’t help that nobody wore masks (and the person putting on the tournament doesn’t believe in vaccines).

At least that is one area where NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has the edge!

sara.ziegler: LOL

So, positive tests of prominent athletes are undoubtedly going to continue as long as there are positive tests of everybody else. Silver said the NBA has “no choice but to learn to live with this virus.” Is that true? Is this the only option for the NBA and every other league that wants to start up again?

kaleigh: If leagues want to start up again in 2020, I can’t imagine how they will avoid people in the league getting sick, short of moving everyone to Antarctica and hosting the whole season there.

maggie: I mean, yeah, no one has any choice but to learn to live with the virus. That’s sort of reality for us all. HOW you choose to learn to live with it, though … there’s a lot of choice in that.

“Have to learn to live with the virus” =/= “welp, I guess we just go back to normal.”

Unless you decide that’s what it means. And then you’re choosing the consequences of that, too.

neil: Yeah, pretending it’s not happening is not a viable way of living with the virus. (As we’re seeing a lot of states learn right now.)

kaleigh: Speak for yourself, guys. I’m moving to the South Pole.

neil: 🐧

maggie: Ironically, Kaleigh, McMurdo seems like it would be a hotbed of virus spread.

But you do you.

kaleigh: Yeah they absolutely would not let me in, coming from New York City.

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A FiveThirtyEight Chat

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.