TINSMAN: Leagues have to choose between safety and 2020 seasons

Brian Tinsman
July 07, 2020 - 3:48 pm

Leagues across all sports are fast approaching the decision between competing in 2020 and ensuring the safety of players, coaches, staff and fans from the spread of COVID-19.

There doesn't seem to be room to do both.

Across the south, politicians are pleading with residents to stay socially distant now in an effort to preserve high school and college football in the fall. The NFL continues to tweak its protocols aimed at keeping America's favorite contact sport from becoming a COVID-19 hotspot.

Just this week, dozens of MLB players tested positive for the virus during the intake screening process, including individuals from 19 of 30 teams. The news was trumpeted in a joint press release by the league and players' association as being far below the national average for positive tests (1.2% vs. 8.7%).

Never mind that many of these players were coming out of a quarantined environment, or at least one that was more socially distanced than the close quarters of a baseball team in season. If two-thirds of teams are already dealing with positive cases, how does that bode for the rest of the summer?

Keep in mind that MLB has already bungled testing for the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics, delaying test results and forcing them to cancel team workouts, out of an abundance of caution.

MLB has proposed testing all players every other day, which adds up to more than 14,000 tests per week. To botch the testing system for 10% of your teams before the complications of travel is not a great start for baseball.

Why would any player currently on the fence, such as Nats closer Sean Doolittle, opt-in for a socio-medical experiment?

The news isn't much better for basketball, where 25 players have tested positive for COVID-19 and four NBA teams had to shut down their training camps due to mitigate outbreaks.

Of the quartet, this was especially troubling for the Milwaukee Bucks, who are a Las Vegas favorite to make a run at the NBA title this year. Now, they will have limited opportunities to prepare before reporting to Orlando on Thursday.

Despite the efforts that leagues have made to socially distance players, eliminate spitting and celebrating, and enforce testing and mask usage, confidence remains low (even among players) that players can be kept safe.

All-Star guard Damian Lillard summed it up in his interview with the LA Times, saying: "My confidence ain't great. My confidence ain't great. You're telling me you're going to have 22 teams full of players follow all the rules? Like, when we have 100% freedom, everybody don't follow all the rules. I don't have much confidence."

And that is the crux of the issue: Americans, including athletes who rely on their bodies for a living, are not taking the steps necessary to stop the spread of the virus.

Spikes in positive tests among sports teams are mirrored by spikes in communities across the country, where people don't understand, can't or won't take the steps necessary to stop the virus' spread.

Unfortunately, that reality seems unlikely to change, either among athletes or the communities they represent. Sports leagues should embrace that reality and either admit that no protocols can guarantee player safety, or they should shut down operations until a vaccine becomes available.

At this rate, every 2020 sports season will be overshadowed by rule changes and the specter of a viral outbreak. COVID-19 will become the game within the game, Bill Belichick will find some way to cheat the system, and we'll just end up putting an asterisk on what becomes known as Corona-gate.

That doesn't sound like the emotional escape that America really needs right now.

Brian Tinsman has covered D.C. sports since 2011, both from the team marketing and skeptical fan perspectives. Tweet your criticisms @Brian_Tinsman.