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There are signs that sports can safely coexist with COVID-19

Braves pitcher Touki Toussaint adjusts his face mask while taking the field before an intrasquad baseball game. Toussaint rejoined the team after testing positive for COVID-19. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Braves pitcher Touki Toussaint adjusts his face mask while taking the field before an intrasquad baseball game. Toussaint rejoined the team after testing positive for COVID-19. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Ever since COVID-19 wiped out the U.S. sports calendar, I’ve felt tension between my desire to see games and my anxiety about whether it’s safe or ethical to play them. My wishes were on a long losing streak to my worries. But recent trends in MLB and MLS provide some hope that the underdog of a safe sports calendar in 2020 is rallying against the heavy favorite of the novel coronavirus making that impossible.

MLB and the players’ union latest weekly audit of COVID-19 testing showed six new positives out of 10,548 samples (.05%). The total number of new positive tests for players and staff since the start of monitoring was 23 out of 17,949 (0.1%), with no positives for 17 of 30 teams. Include intake testing, which began June 27, and there have been 93 positive tests out of 21,701 samples.

Those are encouraging numbers for a sport that’s not in a so-called bubble. It may not stay that way once MLB teams start traveling extensively. Still, getting through summer camps without the whole thing blowing up is a start. It appears baseball will make it to Thursday’s opening day with nearly all players who reported for camp free of the coronavirus.

The news is even better for basketball and soccer. The NBA and MLS holed up at Disney World for the resumption of their seasons. Both leagues have avoided widespread COVID-19 outbreaks.

The NBA announced Monday that there were zero positive tests among 346 players in the past week. The league reported two positives out of 322 players tested the previous week. MLS, which announces test results every other day, has had three consecutive reports of zero positive tests. Soccer has stabilized after two clubs withdrew from the MLS tournament because of multiple COVID-19 infections.

Those developments make me cautiously optimistic that professional sports can safely pull off games without fans. I didn’t have that hope at the beginning of this month. I still doubt college football can do it for several reasons, most of all its inability to separate its unpaid players from campus communities. But the games could go on safely for pro leagues.

The NFL is giving it a shot. Rookies reported for training camp over the past two days and all players are scheduled to arrive next week. Several star players had publicly accused the NFL of ignoring COVID-19 protocol recommendations from its medical experts. That was before the NFL and the players’ union agreed to testing protocol Monday.

Players and some other team personnel will have to test negative twice within a 72-hour period before being allowed inside team facilities. From there, they’ll be tested daily for the first two weeks of camp. That will scale back to every other day if the league’s positive test rate stays below 5%. Still to be determined: what happens after a positive test.

Testing is only one tool for controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Team employees also must be careful away from work. It’s relatively simple for the NBA and MLS to ensure that happens. Their bubbles are semi-permeable because resort employees can come and go. But keeping team employees on-site with frequent testing, social distancing and masks so far seems to be an effective strategy.

(The NBA was smart to establish an anonymous tip line for reporting protocol violations. Some players have grumbled about the “snitch line.” But the normal code of minding one’s business doesn’t apply when one player’s carelessness can start a COVID-19 outbreak that threatens the health and paychecks of all players.)

Baseball has maintained a low rate of positive COVID-19 tests even with team employees not restricted to one area. Some teams have traveled for road exhibition games. Once all teams hit the road, the challenge isn’t limited to avoiding COVID-19 infections on airplanes and buses. It’s also about staying safe when traveling to areas with high rates of spread.

There are lots of those places in the U.S.

The Center for Public Integrity reported is reported to have obtained an unpublicized document prepared for the White House coronavirus task force, dated July 14. It showed that 18 states were in the “red zone” for number of new COVID-19 cases and eleven were in the “red zone” for the rate of tests that come back positive. Georgia appeared on both lists along with three other states with MLB franchises: Arizona, Florida (two teams) and Texas (two teams).

Players, coaches and staff will need to be disciplined at home and on the road. They’ll also need good luck. They are human. People who do their best to follow COVID-19 protocols are at risk of letting their guards down at times.

“I think this is all of us in this together,” NFL Players’ Association president J.C. Tretter said on a conference call. “So (it’s) about everyone doing the right thing. Everybody in that community, everybody in that facility has to do the right thing: the coaches, the staff, the players.”

Players must decide how much risk they are willing to take. A few NBA, MLB and MLS players decided not to play. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players’ Association, told reporters Friday that he hasn’t heard from any players who’ve “fully chosen” to opt out.

What happens with MLB over the next few weeks could have some bearing on whether NFL players think it’s safe to play. Whether games should be played is another matter.

Even if sports teams aren’t contributing to COVID_19 community spread, there’s the ethical issue of testing availability. They have access to tests with quick results while many average citizens don’t. Georgia is among the states struggling to keep up with demand for tests as COVID-19 spreads. Sports teams shouldn’t be able to cut to the front of the line.

The NBA and MLS have shown that COVID-19 can be controlled inside a bubble. MLB is providing proof that it’s possible without one, at least before teams start traveling extensively. There’s always the looming threat of an extensive outbreak scuttling seasons, but I wouldn’t have thought sports leagues could make it even this long without one.

Maybe our professional sports can coexist with COVID-19 for a while.

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