The challenge of protecting players in professional sport

Leagues across the world are handling the current global pandemic in creative ways. More extreme approaches seem to be more effective in protecting staff and players

It is no surprise that coronavirus has rocked sports leagues all over the world. With sport initially being put on hold and many seasons cancelled, organisations have had to adapt to the evolving situation. With no precedent to turn to, leagues are having to adhere to government guidelines regarding social distancing in many different ways. Some are getting particularly creative, like the National Basketball Association (NBA) ‘bubble’ in Orlando, Florida, while others, like the Premier League, are limiting fans’ access to stadiums. Many sports fans are just happy that some sort of season is resuming, however strange it may be.

The NBA ‘bubble’ is an isolated campus for coaches, players and their families at the Walt Disney World Resort. It has reported five consecutive rounds of negative tests as of August 19. It appears that the bubble tactic is working for the NBA, but there remains uncertainty ahead. Much of the success can be attributed to preparation that took place before the bubble was set up. Teams and athletes complained privately about socially-distanced individual workouts, but NBA officials felt the measures taken were necessary in order to create the safest environment possible.

“The league is demanding a lot from all isolating in the campus, including daily Covid-19 testing.”

The league is demanding a lot from all those isolating on the campus, including daily Covid-19 testing. Text message alerts have been implemented in order to ensure testing is being done as scheduled. Everyone is also asked to wear a mask, sanitise their hands frequently and follow social-distancing guidelines. Daily testing has proven one of the best ways to ensure the safety of everyone inside the bubble, as cases can be caught immediately. Security has also been tight, making sure no one enters or leaves the campus so as to decrease any possibility of contamination. But there have been some slip ups, especially early on. Sacramento Kings centre Richaun Holmes and Houston Rockets small forward Bruno Cabocol crossed the campus line and left the hotel room during the initial quarantine period, thus having to re-enter quarantine from the beginning. However, there is a belief among league officials that those who were not willing to follow the steps necessary to keep everyone safe and healthy would have opted to not enter the bubble in the first place. It is safe to say that this experimental approach to keeping the season going is working so far.

As restrictions in the UK began to lessen, the Premier League began pre-season training in mid-August. Upon players returning to their respective clubs, a total of 14 coronavirus cases at just 12 clubs were reported among both staff and players. Compared to a mere 30 positive cases out of the 35,000 tests conducted during the league’s Project Restart in June, the increase is notable. The League is still planning to start on September 12 despite these cases, and will be testing players just once a week rather than their previous twice a week during the last campaign. All people testing positive will be required to self-isolate for seven days. It is concerning that cases seem to have spiked in the League, particularly since players were released from the club to enjoy their off-season.

The Premier League is not the only sports league that has been experiencing a spike in cases; Major League Baseball (MLB) in America had much worse waves of outbreaks. In the wake of these, the MLB implemented stricter requirements for players and staff in order to prevent the spread. The league requires players to wear masks in more places, further restricted places they can visit outside the ballpark, and said that players who do not abide by the rules will be disciplined. As of early August, players must wear masks covering their mouth and nose at all times in the stadium, except when on the field. Additionally, when traveling on planes and buses, surgical masks or N95/KN95 respirators must be worn. Teams must also provide at least four buses when travelling so that no one need sit next to each other.

“Baseball resumed quickly after being shut down due to the pandemic, and clearly is struggling to finish the season.”

While these restrictions may appear a bit extreme, officials want to complete the already cut-short season with the fewest cases possible. Holding conversations while masks are removed to eat or drink is prohibited as well. When players are at hotels they must be granted permission to leave, and they are advised to avoid crowded public spaces like bars, lounges, and malls when at home. The league has also hired security officers in order to police adherence to stricter guidelines. Baseball resumed quickly after being shut down due to the pandemic, and clearly is struggling to finish the season. Many games have been postponed for teams who have experienced outbreaks, but the league maintains that the health and safety of staff and players remains paramount.

“It is reassuring that the GAA is responding quickly and efficiently to changes in these unprecedented times in order to protect players and families.”

The GAA has been very receptive to changing government guidelines. The GAA’s Covid advisory group met August 10 in order to consider implications for clubs in Kildare, Laois, and Offaly that went on lockdown due to a localised increase in coronavirus cases. The number of cases among GAA clubs in these respective counties were not noticeably different than those nationwide, however, in order to adhere to government regulations, action was taken. Further restrictions were placed on these counties including no games permitted until the lockdown was lifted by the government. Training was able to continue, but in groups of 15 or fewer, and travel restrictions remain in place. In addition, the completion of health questionnaires before training sessions should be further encouraged and only indoor gatherings of no more than six people can take place. The Association says these new restrictions are due to “circumstances beyond the control of the three Gaelic Games Associations in Laois, Offaly and Kildare”. It is reassuring that the GAA is responding quickly and efficiently to changes in these unprecedented times in order to protect players and families.

Clearly many different approaches to continuing seasons have been taken across different sports and have produced varying results. However, all leagues maintain that the health and safety of all is the most important factor and sympathise with those affected by Covid-19. Although the NBA’s approach is unconventional and has never been done before, it seems to be the most effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus and protecting players and their families. The way that the NBA is proactive in doing daily testing and having strict rules is allowing training to take place and games to be played without interruption. Similarly, the GAA reacting quickly and efficiently to changes across the counties is also proving beneficial in protecting the safety of players. Conversely, the MLB initially having particularly lax requirements when it resumed has proven to be worrisome as alarming spikes have taken place among multiple teams. Hopefully the season will be able to finish and the further restrictions will reduce the spread.

While avid sports fans are excited to see their favorite teams playing again on the television, the health and safety of everyone involved needs to be the utmost priority.

Shannon McGreevy

Shannon McGreevy is the Sports Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.