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Is MLB’s return working?

Your answer to this question probably determines whether or not you think college football can be played in 2020.

MLB: Game Two-St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago White Sox Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

With the exception of the NFL, which is scheduled to begin its season in September like it always does, basically every major American sports league has returned in some form by now, but only one of the returns will give us an idea of whether or not college football can return.

The PGA Tour returned to play in June, but golf, for reasons that should be rather obvious to anyone who has ever watched or played golf, is a sport built for social distancing. Aside from your caddy, remaining at a safe distance from other people just isn’t that difficult to pull off on a golf course.

The NBA and NHL returned a couple of weeks ago, but both are going with a bubble model that won’t be replicated in college football. Everybody is at a single site, or one of two sites in hockey’s case, and players essentially aren’t allowed to leave the bubble. The same was true for the MLS is Back tournament, though since then MLS has returned to a normal season. (We’ll see how that goes.)

And then there’s Major League Baseball. MLB elected not to go with a bubble for its return to play last month, and the results have been somewhat mixed. Whether or not you think it’s working will go a long way in determining whether college football can be played this fall.

So, is it working? The St. Louis Cardinals only returned to action this weekend after a two-week layoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team; the Miami Marlins had an outbreak over opening weekend and took a week off, which also affected the Philadelphia Phillies (who had played the Marlins in their opening series, and concerns about possible exposure after the Marlins played a game after multiple players tested positive forced them to shut things down for a few days.) The flipside to this, though, is that the other 27 MLB teams — so, 90 percent of the league — have been unaffected by the pandemic, saving any indirect effects on the schedule due to being scheduled to play one of the affected teams. Two entire divisions — the NL West and AL West — have so far been able to play their full schedules without interruption. But there are also concerns about long-term effects from the virus — for instance, Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who was announced to have tested positive for the virus on July 7, was later shut down for the season due to a heart condition known as myocarditis, a side effect of COVID-19.

The flipside to all of this, of course, is that it’s not clear that the sport itself is resulting in an increased likelihood of contracting the virus. Players have contracted the virus off site and spread it inside the clubhouse; but so far, it doesn’t appear that anyone has contracted the virus on the field. But that’s probably an added concern in college football, where players will be in contact with other students (and non-athletes) in dorms, at parties, and in lecture halls. That suggests that college athletes aren’t at any additional risk from playing a sport than they would be simply from existing on a college campus.

In other words, if campuses are open, what’s the point of shutting down football? But if you’re trying to figure out whether the season can be played, MLB is probably the best case scenario for how it will go. And whether or not you think it’s been successful should tell you a lot about whether you think college football can be played safely.