As professional sports leagues begin to resume their seasons and the fate of fall collegiate athletics is still undecided in many conferences, Marist College hosted a panel of professionals working in or around sports to discuss the current climate around returning to play and how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The COVID-19 and Responsible Return to Sports panel spent its hour-plus long call discussing what the individual leagues have done in terms of plans for resuming games, ethical considerations of sports returning and using tests and more in front of over 60 listeners. The discussion was moderated by Henry Abbott of TrueHoop.com.
Jane McManus, the Director of Marist’s Center for Sports Communication, was joined by epidemiologist Zach Binney of Emory University, George Atallah of the NFL Players Association, Brooke Elby of the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association and Erica Vanstone of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
Atallah, the NFLPA’s Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs, remarked that “It’s nearly impossible to try to have this process go forward without a significant guidance from the federal government or from the agencies.” He said that NFLPA administrators sourced data and information from their own group of experts, which they had calls with almost every other day.
“What we really tried to address with them was: forget about football for a second…almost set aside the sport of football and come up with ways to try to stop transmission of the virus,” Atallah said. “At a very basic level, we really focused on our testing and tracing protocols. We demanded daily testing. We demanded that there be no preseason games, because what’s the point of trying to get going and then separating teams into places that we thought were going to be safe and then mixing everybody else together again? We didn’t think that made sense.”
Atallah also explained how the NFLPA defined the “labor-management paradigm”, which in the NFL’s case is between the players and team owners.
“We know that management and the NFL owners were going to do everything they can to get the season up and running, to open training camps and to try to operate ‘as normal’,” he explained. “We also have a very powerful role and very powerful voice to try to make the workplace as safe as possible. So, we pushed that philosophy to the nth degree and really made management sign this memorandum of understanding back in April that clearly defined how we were going to approach this problem together, so that they were not making decisions about player health and safety, reopening, bubble/no bubble, all that stuff – they weren’t doing that in a vacuum. We were at the table. We had veto power. We have checklist rights.”
Binney, despite not being a supporter of bubble plans, acknowledged that the bubbles implemented so far have “been running pretty smoothly, pretty well.” He pointed out how countries that have handled the pandemic better than the United States have been able to bring back sports leagues without bubbles.
“You see bubble plans working in the U.S. You see non-bubble plans working outside of the U.S. Now you try non-bubble plans in the U.S. and so far the returns on those, I’m sorry to say, have not been great,” Binney said, citing the MLB and the Miami Marlins as an example.
Binney has advocated for “home market bubbles” instead of those in a singular site, in which teams would occupy a few hotels in their city, the stadium and the training facility. Elby said that the NWSL discussed a similar solution, but that after meeting with their medical task force “practically every morning”, the league decided that it wasn’t feasible.
Elby, the NWSL’s Executive Director, broke down the NWSL’s plan, which constituted making a bubble right outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. The league faced an obstacle right out of the gate as the Orlando Pride were not able to make the trip to the bubble prior to the start of the season.
“There was no anticipation on how this was going to work out,” Elby said. “We just focused on player safety, but a lot of that is player accountability as well. And staff accountability.” Even with the Pride’s omission from the 2020 season, Elby said the NWSL’s bubble has worked very well. “It was a lot of planning, a lot of creating our own data because it just didn’t exist,” she said. “No one had a guidebook on how to deal with a global pandemic.”
Vanstone said the first step for the WFTDA, which consists of over 400 teams and operates in over 23 countries, was to collect information.
“The very beginning stages of this for us looked like trying to get as much information from as many places as we possibly could,” she said. “We put a task force together and we were getting information from the UK, from Australia, from Germany, and a lot of it was very science-based, evidence-based outside of the United States. And a lot of the information that we were getting from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) still had this tone about it that was like ‘we just don’t know.’”
Vanstone, the Executive Director for the WFTDA, described how the association angled for a science-based approach by assembling a team of epidemiologists, studying their data gathered from all over the world and creating a formula on dealing with outbreaks that, “a few [state] governments and the U.S. were advocating.”
McManus broke down the talking points about the morality that is challenged when sports leagues make decisions about returning to play. She noted that decisions from professional sports leagues can be seen as having more economic concerns than safety concerns, which can resonate with youth and recreational sports organizations.
“I mean, really what we want is to be playing ourselves, right?” she said. “It’s not just [that] we want to watch other people play sports. We want to be able to go about our lives and, you know, go to school or go to a restaurant or whatever it is, and that sports are kind of like our guinea pigs in this arena. I worry that youth sports and recreational sports are actually looking at the pro leagues as a model. And when they’re making these economic based decisions as opposed to looking at something like what Erica’s put together and what [the] WFTDA put together.”
The WFTDA’s COVID-19 Guidelines to Return to Roller Derby is based on how each team’s home market handles COVID-19. As each community becomes less ravaged by the coronavirus, WFTDA teams can slowly begin to host team activities and eventually scrimmages against opposing teams. The document, which offers itself to other sports leagues as a guide, also details when to step back to a previous tier and when it’s safe to advance.
Binney praised the plan, stating that he admires the “ethical aspect that I saw. That was the first plan that I really saw that wasn’t based around ‘how can we force ourselves as a league into the situation that we’re facing?’”
Binney said the WFTDA instead asked, “How do we look at what’s happening in the community around us and recognize that the virus sets the timetable here? And that’s what’s going to determine when we can come back,” he said. “Not trying to force ourselves to meet the virus but allowing our leagues – and providing them guidance – to remain flexible, and watch until the situation in the community gets better and that’s when you can start to come back.”
The statement on page three that explains why fans will not be in attendance stuck out to Binney. The statement reads, “Exposing non-participants to potential risk of infection for the benefit of our sport is not acceptable. Until there are tangible interventions, including vaccines, meaningful therapeutics, widespread testing of cases and/or antibodies, community immunity, or other factors making audiences ethically viable, we do not recommend your league welcome in-person audiences at this time.”
Binney said that he hadn’t seen any other league, “Come out and put things in those moral and ethical and values-laden terms… Frankly, it was refreshing to see that.”
Even with WFTDA’s approach being available to the public, McManus worries that youth sports leagues won’t utilize it and instead will look to bigger leagues like the MLB for direction. She raised a point about, “Little leagues and Pee Wee football and all of these different recreational leagues in towns across the country that are gonna be looking at what Major League Baseball is doing and say ‘Well, if they’re doing it, it’s probably okay, we’ll absorb the cases,’ as opposed to looking at something that is taking into account individual community spread.”
Binney offered a rule of thumb for parents wondering if they should let their kids return to playing sports. He said that parents should observe whether the sport is inside or outside, how many players there are, and how much contact there is. Sports that are played outside with less players and contact are safer.
McManus continued to challenge the concept of how seriously some people are taking the virus. “I’m looking about all of these things and I’m thinking, what is the story that we’re telling about ourselves as a society right now with the way that we’re approaching this and the way that we’re doing this? And it’s alarming to me.” She used the coronavirus-caused death of Herman Cain, a former presidential candidate who regularly traveled despite being in a high-risk age group to illustrate how dangerous it can be to not take the virus seriously. McManus also expressed concern for collegiate athletes.
“Whenever I talk about NCAA football players and whether or not it’s ethical to have them in training facilities right now when they’re getting sick and they’re not being paid and they don’t have representation, I hear people say ‘Well, they’ll be fine if they get it’,” she said. “And don’t think we can say that people will be fine when they get it. Or that they’ll be able to maintain a level of fitness that allows them to play professional sports.”
Atallah said that the NFLPA hired a medical ethicist to raise important questions regarding the plan. “He pushes the NFL to answer questions like, ‘What happens when you open training camps in cities that don’t have hospital beds for the community? What happens when you are creating your own testing bubble and lab, or hiring your own lab, when there aren’t enough tests in certain communities?’”
Asking those questions of the NFL can “bind management to answer those questions which are really designed not just to keep the athletes safe, but also make sure we don’t have an unnecessary negative impact on the community,” Atallah said, though he noted that those answers are yet to be had.
“To be quite frank, I’m not sure that we’ve answered that question all the way,” Atallah continued. “And it’s a problem. It really is a problem that we continue to look at. It is something we grapple with regularly, and we still grapple with as guys are showing up to the facility and getting their rapid tests every day for the first two weeks. There are some questions we still don’t have answers to. What happens in Miami if a player unfortunately contracts the virus and needs a hospital bed? What happens? Or Houston, or other cities where hospital beds are running out? I can’t sit here and tell you that it’s all gonna work out. None of us know.”
Elby explained how the NWSL’s plan was player and safety centric. She said the new commissioner, Lisa Baird “came in with some experience from working with the NFLPA. And so, she came in knowing that she wanted to have a good relationship with her players’ association as well as with the players directly.”
The NWSL does not have a collective bargaining agreement, according to Elby, so the players’ association was “a part of the very first conversation,” she said. “Having us at the table and having us as a part of those conversations was kind of new.”
Elby stressed the importance of giving the players a voice so there can be a two-way street of discussion.
“Having [Baird] come to us and bring these proposals and talk with us allows us to go get feedback from our players and then bring certain decisions to the table. That was a huge portion of this because if players feel like they’re actually being heard and taken care of, there’s a lot more receptiveness to the plans and also knowing that their safety is at the forefront of every single conversation.”
Elby credits Baird’s leadership and the players association for the NWSL’s ability to allow players to opt out of the bubble while still receiving their full salary and benefits, even though the league isn’t as financially sound as bigger leagues.
“That was a huge win,” Elby claimed. “I think that was something that really helped formulate this plan knowing that there was a lot of protection surrounding the players but also just the ability to move forward with the player backing.”
Binney considered how much testing is done to keep the sports league going and what it means in regards to testing for the public.
“I understand the argument that they’re not using a ton of tests,” he said. “If you look at, for example, Major League Baseball: they’re planning to use about 275,000 tests over the course of the season. That’s about a third of what we do nationwide in a day. So if you look at it that way, it’s like: a third of a day of tests. Is that worth it if we can have baseball? And that’s a fair way to think about it. I hope that somebody you know is not the person who’s getting their result delayed by a day and therefore, maybe, spreading the virus to their family members or their coworkers or something like that.”
Binney doesn’t buy the response from some leagues that they aren’t affecting the public’s testing by using their own labs.
“The truth is, yes you are,” he assured. “The question is: Is that small impact worth it if we can have all of the benefits of having that sport back? And all I’m asking people to do is confront that that’s the question that you’re asking. I’m simply posing the question because there are real benefits to getting sports back, especially without fans. Psychological, social, economic, for the leagues and television networks and media, a lot of jobs would be helped by having sports back.”
The return of sports offers an escape from the dreary reality that COVID-19 renders, but sports don’t yield a solution to the pandemic. The decision to resume play requires a lot of discussion about how to do so with the backdrop of the coronavirus’ impact on the players, the league, and communities at large.
“Yes, on one hand, sports are great and everybody is looking forward to the return of the NFL and our players are excited to go back,” Atallah said. “We want to play and all of those things are, I think, important to consider. But, you still have a lot of unanswered questions about the impact that we’re having on the broader community.”
Edited by David Connelly