Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Coronavirus is surging again as sports leagues eye returns. Is this all worth it?

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, right, talks with pitcher Taylor Williams as Yohan Ramirez throws in the bullpen behind while players begin a "summer camp" baseball workout on their ballpark field Friday, July 3, 2020, in Seattle.   (Elaine Thompson)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

In 1995, while working for another newspaper, I covered the bleak spectacle of replacement spring training. Each MLB team – including the one I was following, the San Francisco Giants – was populated with a motley crew of strikebreakers that owners were using to show their absent players that the season would proceed without them.

Yet throughout February and March, and then still on the verge of opening day in April, I had the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that this was all an exercise in futility. I had extreme doubts that these replacement players would see the field in games that counted. And, sure enough, they didn’t. Mere days before the season, Judge Sonia Sotomayor ruled against the owners, the replacement players went home, and the actual major leaguers flooded back.

Though the current circumstances in baseball – and the entire world of sports – are not comparable at all, the nagging feeling I’m experiencing is eerily similar.

As the Mariners returned to the field on Friday, as the MLS readies for its “MLS is Back,” tournament next week, as the NHL and NBA make preparations to enter a “bubble” environment later this month to relaunch their seasons, as NFL and college football plow ahead with preparations for the 2020 season, I can’t help but wonder, once again:

Is this all an exercise in futility?

Some sports have already started back up, including the National Women’s Soccer League last week in Utah, as well as the PGA and NASCAR.

But as COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket in pockets of the country, the degree of difficulty to pull all this off is becoming clearer by the day. To say it’s problematic is an understatement.

I’m all in favor of giving it the old college try (or the old professional try, as the case may be). Since the sports world was abruptly shut down in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test on March 11, health professionals have learned multitudes about the treatment and prevention of COVID. All these relaunches are being executed under rigorous medical guidelines.

Yet COVID is relentless, and as of yet, still unstoppable. All the precautions in the world won’t make players, coaches and support staff immune to its dangers, no matter how impenetrable each league tries to make its work environment. In MLB, there is the added wild card of travel, which while reduced to regional trips, still is problematic. Within all sports, there is an element of trust involved as well. No matter how many precautions exist, leagues are reliant on their personnel adhering to them when no one is looking.

It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to conjure a scenario in which COVID outbreaks run rampant through teams. Just this week, it was revealed FC Dallas has had nine players and one coach test positive for COVID-19 just a few days ahead of its MLS tournament opener in Orlando. Clemson had 28 football players test positive. Five MLB players have opted out of the 60-game season over coronavirus concerns. Across the sports world, a who’s who of athletes have tested positive, from Ezekiel Elliott, Von Miller and Kevin Durant to Novak Djokovic, Nikola Jokic and Charlie Blackmon (and there are certainly others who haven’t been made public yet).

Voices of concern are starting to be heard with increasing volume. Many wonder how football, a sport with unavoidable close contact and large rosters, will be able to proceed on schedule.

The prospect of moving the college football season to the spring, when perhaps a vaccine will be available, is gaining momentum. Dr. Anthony Fauci said recently that unless the NFL could keep its players in a bubble – an unrealistic prospect for a variety of reasons – “it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall.”

Remember the “second wave” of coronavirus that has long been feared to emerge in the fall? That’s still looming, even as the first wave shows little signs of slowing down. Dr. Fauci also said that MLB should aim to end its season in September – but current plans are for the postseason playoffs to take place throughout October.

Many people will counter that these young, strong athletes have little to fear from COVID-19, even if they should contract the disease. That doesn’t take into account the fact that some young people have dire results from COVID (a professor at the University of Illinois predicted this week that three to seven players would die if all college football players returned to campus for the season), that no one yet knows the long-term effects of the disease, that some of the supporting cast in pro and college sports is neither young nor strong, and especially the risk of spreading the disease to those in society who are more vulnerable.

MLB, in a written statement, said that by returning it hopes “to provide entertainment and some sense of normalcy for fans during these unprecedented times.”

It also has a multibillion-dollar industry to protect, as do the other sports. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, told ESPN the league has “an obligation” to try to play, “because the alternative is to stay on the sideline. And the alternative is to, in essence, give in to this virus.”

I hope the final score turns out to be Sports World 1, COVID 0. But I can’t shake this nagging feeling.