Over the past few days, every major sports league in season has had at least one team rocked by COVID-19 outbreaks. The rosters of the Los Angeles Rams, Sacramento Kings, and Boston Bruins are depleted. Five Premier League games scheduled for this weekend have been postponed amid what looks like a league-wide outbreak, as clubs push for a hiatus. The Washington Football Team signed Gale Gilbert’s son to start for them, since all their other quarterbacks are out sick. The Duke men’s basketball team scheduled a makeup game against Loyola Maryland after their game against Cleveland State was canceled, only for the makeup game to be canceled. Saints head coach Sean Payton has COVID. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is pissed off at the NFL. In the time since I began writing this post, Immanuel Quickley and Anthony Edwards have both also tested positive, a number of NFL games were rescheduled, another pair of NHL games postponed.
This outbreak within sports leagues is happening despite decently high vaccination rates across the board, and before the Omicron variant has taken over as the primary variant in the United States. There’s no reason to think conditions will improve anytime soon, or that the worst of this current outbreak is already past. Leagues have begun to tweak their COVID protocols, but there are two ways this can go: Stop playing games until everyone is healthy enough to resume playing, or create protocols for asymptomatic, COVID-positive players to get back on the field. If current trends hold for even a few more days, leagues will have put themselves in the impossible position of holding games with fewer and fewer healthy players, while thinning the schedule out with ad hoc cancelations when outbreaks get too severe.
The NFL is the league with the least wiggle room to mess with the schedule, and its new protocols open the door for players who test positive to return to their teams sooner. The new rules reinstate mask mandates, limits on the sizes of indoor gatherings, and virtual meetings, while also relaxing the rules for vaccinated, asymptomatic positive players returning to the field. Rather than return two negative tests 24 hours apart, players can now begin testing one day after the first positive test and become eligible to return if they clear a certain threshold that essentially measures whether they are contagious or not. This is a step towards simply not testing asymptomatic players at all, an idea which Cowboys owner Jerry Jones floated on the radio today. It hinges on the idea that COVID is more of a nuisance to the vaccinated, but the NFL has never cared much about player safety.
Meanwhile, the NFL has drastically reorganized Week 15. Raiders-Browns, Seahawks-Rams, and WFT-Eagles have all been pushed to early next week. The Eagles will be getting a short week because of the opposing team’s outbreak, but if any game is declared a forfeit, no players from either team will receive their game checks.
On Thursday, the NBA announced an expanded testing protocol that will conveniently begin the day after Christmas. However, players who are 14 days out from a booster shot or have recently recovered from an infection will be exempt from testing. NBA rosters are smaller and thinner than NFL rosters, so if the league’s going to get through this period without significantly shutting down, emergency G-League signings will have to serve as a temporary solution for a few weeks. Shutting down the league is the only way to preserve serious competitive integrity and also the health of everyone involved with the league, but the league has financial incentives not to do so one week before the biggest day of the regular season.
Something significant needs to change, but the choices here will be dictated by money. Creating an incentive structure for everyone to get vaccinated was the right thing to do, just as trying to get people boostered up now is the right thing to do. If the Omicron variant successfully evades existing vaccines and reinfects previously infected players, the leagues have to be flexible. At this point it’s not possible to have a COVID-free league, but there are ways to contain it. While the leagues’ initial plans made sense for the virus as it was understood months ago, this new phase requires new tactics.