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Sports will have to figure out how to coexist with the pandemic

All right... let’s talk about it.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As the whole nation, and most of the world, went into what we called “lockdown” (but which, at least in most of the United States, wasn’t actually a lockdown, per se) back in March, two things were clear:

  1. Some form of lockdown was necessary in order to slow the spread of the novel Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, and
  2. Nobody could reasonably be expected to stay at home indefinitely.

And related to the second point, sports at all levels going into lockdown at the same time as everybody else would make staying at home even more unbearable for a lot of people. Imagine the first month of lockdown with March Madness, followed by MLB Opening Day, the NBA Playoffs, the NHL Playoffs, and the Masters, as opposed to what actually happened, which was two months of having to exhaust everything that you could possibly watch on Netflix.

Now, as college athletes return to campus after three months on the sidelines, and as professional sports leagues start making moves to return to action (or have actually returned to action, in the case of the PGA Tour), the conversation is shifting more to one about how to minimize the risk from the virus. And that’s necessary because of the second point: no, we’re not locking down indefinitely. Instead, as we attempt to get back to normal, sports coming back is going to be a part of that.

College athletics is inherently tricky in this regard. Unlike professional sports, college athletes aren’t unionized and (in theory, anyway) aren’t being paid. When MLBPA and MLB try to hammer out how and when to come back, the players are effectively agreeing to the conditions under which they are willing to return to work. But college sports aren’t quite the same thing: instead of the players agreeing to conditions for return, the conditions are being dictated by schools, conferences, and the NCAA. Don’t like it? Well, you’re free to give up your scholarship.

With all that said, I believe two things to be true:

  1. Colleges and universities are going to do whatever they can to have campuses open in the fall, if for no other reason than it’s become abundantly clear that few people are willing to pay full tuition for online classes. That’s particularly true at a school like Vanderbilt, but it’s even true for state universities (and here, let’s point out that many SEC schools are reliant on out-of-state students paying higher tuition rates.)
  2. There is no good argument for having campuses open and not playing sports, because the biggest danger to student-athletes for contracting the virus comes from being around the student body at-large and not from being on the field.

So the real short version of this is that college football is probably going to be played in the fall, and at this point we’re simply figuring out how to minimize and mitigate the risk to the student-athletes playing the sport.

And some people have figured out a pretty viable way of doing that: constant testing, and isolation of those who test positive. This is, frankly, why I am not super concerned about reports coming out about players testing positive as they return to campus: when everybody is tested en masse, some asymptomatic people are inevitably going to test positive. That’s actually something of a good thing, because then they’re going to go chill in their apartment for a couple of weeks instead of infecting everybody else at the training facility. (Unless, apparently, you’re Houston, in which case you shut down voluntary activities after a week because people tested positive after having been around the training facility for a week. Hey, there are some dumb ways to do this.)

So this is more or less where we are at. If sports leagues, and I’m counting the NCAA in this, are planning to come back, then sports are simply going to have to figure out how to coexist with the pandemic. That means lots of testing, and holding players out if they test positive even if asymptomatic. That will probably mean no fans. It will probably mean coaches — many of whom are in vulnerable populations — perhaps keeping their distance. And it may well mean forfeits becoming a thing when teams can’t field enough players. Or, as Dan Wolken put it:

And this is kind of where I am. Sports are going to come back, because sports have to come back, and that’s not because it’s probably the best thing for fighting a global pandemic for entire football rosters and their (sometimes geriatric) coaching staffs to spend three and a half hours together on a field — the first point above — but because sports coming back would do a hell of a lot more to encourage people to stay the hell home and just watch sports on television than ten thousand CDC guidelines could ever do.

And once we’re there, it’s all about figuring out how to have sports coexist with a pandemic, and right now we’re seeing the first steps in that process.