While some might have hoped that the return of sports leagues in the United States would triumphantly signal some steps toward normalcy, the lurching process has instead felt like a delicate and jittery high-wire act.
The source of much tension over the past few weeks has been the waves of testing undertaken across sports and the resulting spate of athletes with confirmed coronavirus infections. None of the leagues have been spared. Preparations have been delayed, facilities have closed and opened and closed again, and all sorts of questions have proliferated.
So how should the results of these tests be interpreted when it comes to the prospects of sports in this country? Why have they occurred in the first place? Where do the leagues go from here?
With the help of a few experts, we tried to make sense of the past couple weeks and understand what could be at stake in the days to come.
First, a look at the numbers.
Sports leagues in the past month have begun the cycle of aggressive testing required to function amid the pandemic.
On Monday, for example, the N.H.L. announced that of the 396 players who had returned to club facilities over the previous month, 23 had tested positive for the virus. Another 12 players, the league said, were known to have tested positive outside the official league testing protocol. Multiple teams closed training sites within the past month in response to intrasquad outbreaks.
Last week, the N.B.A. announced that 25 players out of 351 had tested positive from June 23 to June 29. The league also announced that, in that same period, 10 team staff members out of 884 tested positive.
Major League Baseball on Friday announced that 58 players and eight staff members had tested positive, out of 3,748 total samples collected, in the league’s latest round of testing. The league had temporarily shut down all spring-training facilities last month in Arizona and Florida in response to a wave of positive tests. More recently, the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants canceled team workouts because of testing delays.
Why do those numbers seem high?
To experts, they do seem high. The 5.8 percent positive test rate in the N.H.L.’s official protocol, for instance, was probably higher than what a test of the same number of people in the general population would reveal. As for why, the experts could only speculate.
“They’re energetic people by their very nature,” said William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor focused on infectious diseases. “Many of them are quite gregarious. Expecting them to change their behavior completely to become semi-hermits and not engage in social activities is kind of a stretch.”
But hold off on any wholesale blame of the athletes. It could be reasoned, for example, that these players would have spent less time in risky situations, and thus contracted fewer cases of the virus, if they had not felt the pressure to go out and prepare for the upcoming restarts of their leagues.
Instead the demands of their jobs required some of them to spend more time in gyms, working out or playing pickup games to stay sharp and prepare for competition.
The general lack of specificity in the data released by leagues has made some analysis difficult, but there was one potentially telling dynamic embedded within the N.B.A.’s most recent testing numbers: the drastic difference in positive test rates between players (7.1 percent) and staff members (1.1).
“That means there’s something behavioral about players that’s leading them to get sick many times more often then staff,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University. “I supposed that’s not totally shocking. These are young guys. They may feel immune. You expect some differences, but that was a wider gap than I was expecting.”
How are the leagues navigating these results?
Carefully. A vivid example of how things can begin to go south could be seen in Major League Soccer’s so-called bubble at the ESPN sports complex at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. (The N.B.A. is also relying on a similar restricted, but not fully enclosed environment for its own restart at the complex, and as of Thursday, all 22 teams had arrived on site.)
“The most delicate time for a bubble is getting people into the bubble uninfected,” Binney said. “M.L.S. failed miserably at that.”
So far two M.L.S. clubs have been forced to withdraw from its tournament after multiple players tested positive after arriving at the site. FC Dallas had 10 players and one coach test positive before competition began. On Thursday, the second day of the tournament, Nashville SC was forced to pull out of the event after nine players on its team tested positive.
Binney said the coronavirus’s incubation period, which normally lasts around three to five days but can be up to two weeks, probably made it tough to catch cases over a short period of testing. It would be another few days before the league could be sure that the virus had not spread to others there.
That is why Briana Furch, an infectious disease specialist who has informally advised a number of N.B.A. players this summer, has urged athletes to continue to exercise caution even upon arrival in a bubblelike environment. She said they should wear masks, practice social distancing and wipe down surfaces, whenever possible.
“In a bubble it can still spread like wildfire,” she said.
Have semi-enclosed environments worked elsewhere?
The early success of the National Women’s Soccer League’s restricted campus might provide a sense of hope for other sports. The teams there have shown no positive cases since play began on June 27.
They have had a few factors working in their advantage. They did have an outbreak within a team, but were lucky that this cluster of infections — 10 positive cases among the players and staff of the Orlando Pride, which ruled the team out of the competition on June 22 — happened before the individuals arrived at the site in Utah. They have fewer people there, meaning there are fewer opportunities for infection. And the virus around the world, in general, seems to be hitting men harder than women.
But on a basic level, Binney said, “The N.W.S.L. bubble is a proof of concept that a bubble can work.”
What about the virus outbreaks outside sports’ sites?
Infections, particularly in the South and West, have been surging for the past month. And experts reiterated that no matter how tightly controlled a sports league’s restricted space might be, it will still exist within, and be affected by, a larger surrounding ecosystem.
“The circumstances nationally have changed, and the virus appears to be out of control again,” Schaffner said.
Florida, the temporary home this summer of the N.B.A. and M.L.S., has been an intense hot spot, with hospitalizations and deaths increasing at a dramatic rate. Even if the leagues manage to keep the virus out of their ranks, could a worsening of the situation in the region force them to reconsider their operation?
“If Orlando is struggling to test people and turn those tests around quickly enough, how long can you stay in your bubble testing everybody, doing whatever it is you’re trying to do to get tests back in 24 to 48 hours?” Binney said. “How long could you fiddle while Orlando burns? I think it’s a real question. At some point you have to look around you and decide when this becomes an all-hands-on-deck situation.”