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Why It Only Took One Player With Coronavirus To Shutter Sports

After Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first athlete in American professional sports to publicly disclose a positive test result for the coronavirus (COVID-19), it took less than 24 hours for the rest of the sports world to come to a screeching halt.

Gobert’s positive test was reported late Wednesday night, just about an hour after Utah’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was originally set to tip off. By Thursday evening, the ripple effect was massive: in addition to the NBA, each of the NFL, MLS, NWSL, U.S. Soccer, ATP, MLB, NHL, NWHL, PGA and NCAA had canceled, suspended or postponed major events and/or the entirety of their league operations.


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Though only one additional member of the 58 tested people associated with the Jazz (star guard Donovan Mitchell) tested positive for the virus, it’s not at all difficult to see why the NBA had no choice but to suspend its operations immediately — and why other leagues had to do so as well. Even as teams play in different leagues, often in different cities and stadiums, American sports are highly interconnected, which underscores the need to take seriously how widely the virus can spread.

Recent research suggests that the virus transmits most easily through “prolonged, unprotected contact,” so it’s not particularly likely that the virus was transmitted to any of the players or employees of the teams against which the Jazz played, nor those who work in their respective arenas. But it is possible, so the utmost caution is warranted. That’s especially true because while most professional athletes are not in the age range at risk of the most severe outcomes, many coaches, staffers and arena workers are. And the close quarters of athletic competition leaves people — players, coaches, executives, arena workers and fans alike — vulnerable to community spread.

“The problem is we don’t know how many people have been infected in each location,” said Wan Yang, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, about the risk of sporting events. “We’ve seen many, many cases of this superspreading due to huge gatherings. It’s a big concern. If there’s transmission locally, people getting together will lead to transmissions.”

Accordingly, Gobert, Mitchell and the rest of Utah’s traveling party have all been instructed to self-isolate for two weeks, as have any players who played against the Jazz within the 10 days prior to Gobert’s positive test announcement, according to a report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. But because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives 14 days as the longest incubation period for similar viruses, teams like the Washington Wizards, who played the Jazz on Feb. 28, are also self-quarantining.

Within the 14-day period prior to Gobert’s positive test, the Jazz also played games against the Boston Celtics (twice), Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, while Mitchell and the rest of Utah’s traveling party also shared Chesapeake Energy Arena with the Thunder prior to the cancellation of Wednesday’s game. And those opponents obviously didn’t only play against the Jazz during that time span. Combined, Utah’s seven scheduled opponents played against 12 other NBA teams; if any non-Jazz players unknowingly contracted the virus from Gobert and/or Mitchell, there is a chance they may have exposed those other teams to the virus as well. At the moment, no players on any of these teams have tested positive for coronavirus, and none has publicly reported experiencing symptoms; but because the onset of symptoms can sometimes be delayed, the safest course is self-quarantine.

But while no further coronavirus cases have been reported in the NBA, the potential effects of Gobert and Mitchell contracting the virus stretch beyond the league itself: The Jazz played three games in NBA arenas that are also home to NHL squads, and they played a home game against an NBA team that shares an arena with the NHL team in its city. The Knicks and Rangers both play in Madison Square Garden; the Celtics and Bruins both play in TD Garden; and the Pistons and Red Wings both play in Little Caesars Arena.1

It seems unlikely that any of those hockey teams had direct contact with Gobert, Mitchell or anybody else from the Jazz’s traveling party. But the virus can live on surfaces for days, and road teams in the NBA and NHL often use the same locker room in opposing arenas. That means the NHL teams that played in Boston, New York and Detroit in the days following the Jazz’s visit to those cities and may have touched the same surfaces as either Gobert or Mitchell could conceivably be affected as well.2

The Bruins played the Tampa Bay Lightning at home and the Philadelphia Flyers on the road in the days between the Jazz playing in their building and the announcement of Gobert’s positive test. The Rangers played the Capitals and New Jersey Devils at home and the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche on the road. And the Red Wings played host to both the Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes.

That’s 20 NBA teams and 10 NHL teams that have either been in at least one of the same arenas as the Jazz or played against a team that calls one of those arenas home during the period of time when Gobert and/or Mitchell may have already contracted the virus. Putting aside the relatively low probability of the virus spreading this way, the potential exposure of 30 of the 61 teams in two major sports leagues highlights exactly why games have been canceled for the foreseeable future.

Of course, all of these teams also participated in events beyond their games, including at locations beyond their home arenas, some of which also played host to other events. The Jazz held a practice at Emerson College in Boston, for example, though because the practice occurred during the school’s spring break, the college has been advised that no immediate action is required. The Bruins’ practice facility hosts home games for the NWHL’s Boston Pride. The Wizards’ practice facility was home to the Colonial Athletic Association’s men’s conference tournament, and the conference has announced that one of the game officials who worked at the men’s tournament tested positive for the virus. Madison Square Garden was set to host the men’s Big East Tournament before it was canceled on Thursday, though not before half of one game was played. Referees of Jazz games played both at home and on the road also traveled around the country to officiate other games.

The case of the Utah Jazz demonstrates why state and local governments in the U.S. continue to cancel mass gatherings, including sporting events. Doing so may help “flatten the curve” of the virus’s spread, allowing the health care system to both delay and reduce the peak of the outbreak and potentially save the lives of people who may have otherwise become infected.

Footnotes

  1. The Wizards, who visited Utah, and Capitals both play in Capital One Arena.

  2. Arenas and locker rooms are cleaned after games, and some teams have upgraded their postgame cleanup efforts to include commercial-grade sanitizer, but that change was made only recently.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

Anna Wiederkehr is a senior visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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