Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros (74) is congratulated by teammates after defeating the New York Rangers 1-0 in an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in New York. The Nashville Predators won 1-0. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)
When you saw the packed stadiums and arenas, when you knew that nearly all athletes had been vaccinated, when there was little mention of positive tests or quarantines, it was so easy to believe the worst was over.
Sports, it seemed, had survived the covid-19 pandemic.
Not so fast.
By taking their eye off the ball (or puck), professional and college sports left themselves susceptible to just the sort of chaos we’ve seen in recent days.
Games postponed. Practices canceled. Scores of players in isolation after testing positive or being around someone who did. The Cleveland Browns facing the possibility of starting a quarterback they just signed off the practice squad.
The virus has made a rousing comeback.
On Friday, the NFL hastily pushed back three weekend games, including the one involving the Browns, to Monday and Tuesday. The NHL shut down two more teams, and the hard-hit Calgary Flames will remain on pause through the holiday break.
The NBA is dealing with the same sort of issues, along with several college hoops teams. A men’s game was hastily thrown together for today in Las Vegas between No. 21 Kentucky and North Carolina after their original opponents — No. 15 Ohio State and No. 4 UCLA — pulled out because of covid-19.
Much of that depends of how effectively the pro leagues and college conferences are able to mitigate the spread of the virus in the next few weeks, a difficult task further hampered by the rise of the highly contagious omicron variant.
The NFL, which took a major hit when Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers deceived the media and general public into believing he was vaccinated and flaunted virus protocols, announced Thursday a return to many of the stricter guidelines that were in place a year ago.
That includes everyone wearing masks at training facilities regardless of vaccination status, remote or outdoor meetings, no in-person meals, limiting the number of people in team weight rooms, and restrictions on activities outside the team facilities.
The NBA and its players also agreed to enhanced health and safety protocols through the holiday season.
The one thing that’s not going to happen is a widespread shutdown of sports, like we saw at the beginning of the pandemic.
Sports lost billions of dollars in 2020. The owners are not about to let that happen again.
They’ll likely get no objection to carrying on largely with business as usual from all those Americans who’ve decided that the best way to beat the virus is to simply ignore it.
Not surprisingly, that’s been about as effective as a child covering his or her eyes to make something bad go away.
At least 800,000 Americans have died from covid-19 in less than two years, according to John Hopkins University. Stunningly, far more people have died in 2021 than the previous year, even though highly effective vaccines are now widely available.
Many athletes who’ve tested positive show no signs of being ill, leading some to wonder if they should be forced to sit out when they feel perfectly normal.
Experts acknowledge there’s little need to shut down for a few weeks or go to the sort of “bubble” system that allowed leagues to complete their 2020 seasons.
“We’re in a very different world from a year ago,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s not too bad for young, healthy athletes.”
No argument there. But if athletes were allowed to compete while asymptomatic, they could pass on covid-19 to someone who is at must greater risk. A coach, perhaps. Maybe a locker room attendant.
The virus still has a death rate of 1.6% in the U.S. — roughly 16 times greater than the flu.
Here are some recommendations:
• Mandated vaccines. The players unions in every sport should sign off on requiring their members to take the jab. Getting vaccinated, then receiving a booster shot, remains the best protection against infection and serious illness. Every athlete should be vaccinated — or they can’t play.
• Same for the fans. Pro leagues and colleges conferences should require proof of vaccination or at least a recent negative test to get into every arena (though this would surely be taken to court in some states). While there has been no evidence of a sporting event leading to a major outbreak, there is no need to take a chance.
• Stricter protocols. Like many of us, pro sports let down their guard when it looked like covid-19 was waning. That was a major miscalculation. The NFL, as we mentioned, has restored many of the rules that were in place during the worst of the pandemic. They never should’ve gone away.
Hopefully, at some point, we’ll get to a stage in this horrible pandemic where most people are immunized and effective treatments are widely available.
Maybe there will come a time when covid-19 is viewed as roughly the equivalent of the common cold.
But, as sports has discovered in recent days, we’re not there yet.
Not even close.
Nashville Predators center Colton Sissons (10) and left wing Filip Forsberg (9) celebrate after teammate defenseman Mattias Ekholm scored an empty-net goal against the Colorado Avalanche during the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
FILE – Cleveland Browns quarterback Case Keenum throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cleveland. Keenum, who was slotted to start Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, with Baker Mayfield sidelined after testing positive with COVID-19, has also tested positive, a person familiar with the situation tells The Associated Press. Keenum’s positive result came after he practiced Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the team may have more confirmed cases. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)
FILE – Cleveland Browns quarterback Nick Mullens throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cleveland. Mullens is slated to make his first start since last season for San Francisco. The Browns activated him from the practice squad Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, presumably to be their No. 2 behind Case Keenum before the latest wave of positive COVID-19 results. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)
An ice resurfacer prepares the rink before an NHL hockey game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Florida Panthers, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. The Panthers announced that eight players will not play due to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Information sign about COVID-19 testing is displayed at Deerfield Park Plaza in Deerfield, Ill., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. The state of Illinois reported nearly 12,000 new cases of coronavirus in the last 24 hours, the largest single-day increase in new cases in more than a year. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
FILE – In this June 10, 2020, file photo, an ambulance is parked at Arizona General Hospital in Laveen, Ariz. Arizona is continuing to see slight downward trends with coronavirus hospitalizations as officials find more related deaths. Arizona is committing millions of dollars and asking the federal government for extra help as hospitals face a growing strain from rising COVID-19 caseloads and warn they are nearing their limits. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)