The pandemic isn’t over for us or our sports

Georgia football-Alabama-2022 National Championship Game

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

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Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith during the 2021 SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Our sports leagues have tried to create a world that can’t be touched by the coronavirus. The NBA pulled it off by playing out its 2019-20 season inside a “bubble” at Disney World, but otherwise, escaping COVID-19 is a fantasy. Vaccines can’t save leagues that operate in a country where behavior that risks other people’s health is considered a personal choice.

That’s why it’s no surprise that we’re back to pauses, postponements and patchwork rosters. The omicron variant of COVID-19 is surging. It’s happening just in time for the college football bowl season, the NFL’s playoff race and the NBA’s Christmas showcase. Infectious disease experts say conditions are going to get only worse.

Booster shots are effective against the delta and omicron variants. But only about 30 percent of Americans who are fully vaccinated have received one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Players and coaches in the major sports leagues take more precautions than most people. Omicron still has found them. The NFL, NBA, NHL and college basketball have had to postpone several games because of positive tests that include the latest variant.

Hawks guard Trae Young was set to miss a game Sunday because of a positive test. It turned out there was no game because of an outbreak among the visiting Cavaliers. By Tuesday, Hawks players Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela also entered health and safety protocols along with three team staffers.

There’s a chance the Hawks will play at New York on Saturday without Young, who tested positive Sunday. He joins a handful other NBA Christmas Day stars on the COVID-19 list. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo also might be forced to sit. The NBA isn’t in the bubble anymore.

The COVID-19 surge so far hasn’t disrupted the college bowl season. Ten of the 44 scheduled games were played on time through Monday. Georgia is scheduled to travel to south Florida on Sunday in advance of the Orange Bowl. The third-ranked Bulldogs are set to play No. 2 Michigan in a College Football Playoff semifinal Dec. 31.

This week, Georgia’s players are working out on campus before taking a holiday break. Then it’s off to Florida for more work.

“That’s a big thing we have going on for us right now is starting back with the masks (indoors),” Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith said Tuesday. “I know everybody thought we were done with the masks, and now the masks came back. Anything to do to win games, so that’s not any question.

“As far as keeping the team safe, a lot of guys are about to go back to their family. I’m going to see my grandma. I’m going hunting with my uncle. I don’t want to get those people sick.”

It’s refreshing to hear Smith express concern about the health of others. It’s an antidote for the callousness of people who say COVID-19 is nothing to worry about for young, healthy athletes. In addition to being false — people with mild cases of COVID have experienced long-term symptoms — that sentiment dehumanizes athletes as vehicles for entertainment. Smith reminds us that they are people who care about their families and community.

Unlike Smith and his fellow unpaid student workers, professional athletes have the power to negotiate their work conditions. The NBA and the players’ association agreed to more frequent testing for players and more stringent requirements for masks. There are limited exceptions for players who’ve had booster shots or recently recovered from the virus. These are prudent measures in response to a sharp, league-wide increase in COVID-19 cases.

Meanwhile, NFL players decided to go along with the league’s plan to give up trying to stop the spread of COVID-19. There’s no other way to interpret loosened protocols in response to about 200 players testing positive since Dec. 13, according to the league. The NBA is trying to stop and isolate outbreaks. The NFL doesn’t want to know about them.

The league and players’ union decided to stop weekly testing of fully vaccinated players who have no symptoms and instead will use a “sample selection” of players. That almost certainly will lead to more infected players taking the field. Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, told reporters that the rationale for the change is that most of the detected cases have been asymptomatic or mild.

Just remember that when someone talks about “mild” cases of COVID-19 they are glossing over the possibility of long-term health problems associated with the virus. They also are ignoring the strain on the health-care systems for cases that end up being serious. The NFL is concerned only with making money, of course, but it will be bad for business if enough players get sick.

NFL players who self-report symptoms still must isolate and produce a negative test before returning to the field. Everybody knows what that will mean in practice. Players just won’t report symptoms, which seems to be the way the NFL and its players want it.

“We are emphasizing personal responsibility,” Sills said, per ESPN.

That’s the mantra for institutional leaders who have no interest in fixing systemic failures. Do nothing or adopt policies that make problems worse, then blame individuals for the predictably poor outcomes. COVID-19 has thrived in a society where a large part of the population cares less about massive sickness and death (for other people) than being inconvenienced.

That attitude wouldn’t be such a big problem if our leaders were more responsible. They’ve always told us our economic system works best for the people. For going on two years, they’ve made clear that a certain number of people they consider expendable must be allowed to get sick and die so that the economy works.

Some saw sports as an escape from that reality. That never was going to be the case. Sports are part of our society, which is sick (literally and figuratively). The games will go on so long as leagues can dress enough bodies in uniform. But the pandemic isn’t done with sports, even if many Americans are done with the pandemic.