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In these restart plans, are we underestimating the health risk to athletes?

Social distancing is impossible during a basketball game.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Athletes know about risk. They risk injury every time they play. Kevin Durant knows. Gordon Hayward knows. From the day an athlete takes that first step into any competitive arena, he or she does so with the innate understanding that injury could result.

Risking injury is one thing. But risking illness? That’s a different story.

Yet that’s the risk today’s athletes face, looking at a return to sports amid a pandemic. And the specific health risk hasn’t been discussed nearly enough. For all the curiosity and fascination about logistical details, for all the importance of maintaining competitive integrity while establishing seeding formats or playoff structures, as much as those details need to be worked out before any real discussion of retaking the ice, the court, or the field can happen, the most important consideration has to be the players’ health.


Is all of this really worth the risk?

Of course, we are already getting that answer, and the collective “yes” from leadership brokers in the NBA, MLB, NFL, MLS, PGA, NWSL, WNBA, EPL, UFC, KBO et al has been resounding. But never should that unified desire to get back to work silence the sincere concern any athlete has about contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Never in the discussion should it be lost that they are the ones most vulnerable to exposure, with the very act of playing defying the most basic principles of how to flatten the curve, including social distancing and wearing masks.

As the Centers for Disease Control explains on its website, “The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person,” specifically “between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet).”

Ever look at a pregame huddle? A meeting on the bench? A box-out for a rebound? A coordinated pass rush? No 6-foot radius there.


The CDC also describes the spread as occurring “through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks … droplets land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly inhaled into the lungs.”

Have you watched sideline instructions from shouting coaches? Seen the guys who spit, cough, or sneeze in the course of playing their game? How can you possibly mitigate that?

You can’t.

The risk is real, and must be acknowledged, and not just with important protocols like the ones the NBA detailed in a memo to players Tuesday, though those are hugely vital.

The fear must be acknowledged, too, and treated with respect, especially for those within the sports world who would be at the greatest risk:

Coaches who fall in the older demographic, above 60, and are statistically more likely to contract the virus and suffer more serious complications from it. Athletes who have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, or heart murmurs. Offensive linemen, not only at the professional level but all the way through college, who routinely push 300 pounds and thus immediately move into a higher-risk category.

Though the path of COVID-19 has mystified the medical community in the way it can affect each patient so differently, the most common complication has been to the lungs and/or respiratory system. That has to scare athletes who make their living using their lungs.

So go ahead and smile about the perks revealed Tuesday in the NBA’s proposed Disney World bubble — the access to golf courses, table tennis, and video games. Imagine ordering catered meals from the many gourmet dining options on-site. Dream of the pristine running trails, training rooms, or boating on the lake. And create your own mental list of on-demand movies for personal theater viewing.


Luxury, sure, but don’t for a moment forget that all of it is in place because athletes won’t be able to leave the campus without risking exposure, and thus quarantine.

So pay closer attention to the other details in the NBA plan. Players and staff would arrive on “campus” no later than July 9 for games that would begin July 30 and would begin their stay in the bubble by undergoing two separate coronavirus tests, followed by in-room quarantine for 36 hours.

Once that’s complete, guidelines include social distancing wherever possible, mask wearing for all non-solitary activities, and specific rules about hotel accommodations, from cleaning protocols to bans on visiting each other’s rooms.

Of course, we know there are no guarantees that all of it can keep the bubble virus-free. Until there is a vaccine, that risk remains. It was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell who acknowledged as much this week, saying he expects additional positive tests like the one Ezekiel Elliott’s agent confirmed to NFL Network.

For the NBA, if someone tests positive, the plan calls for the person to be placed in isolation housing, to be given a second test in case there was a false positive, and a third to determine whether further isolation is necessary.


Beyond that, the NBA will include cardiac screening for anyone positive and use video technology to aid in contact tracing.

Give the NBA credit, not only for the obvious work and detail that has been put into the restart plan, but also for a position from the start that allowed players to decline to play. As commissioner Adam Silver said Monday on ESPN, “I can only say, it may not be for everyone.”

And, he added, “We also have an arrangement with the Players’ Association where if a player chooses not to come, it’s not a breach of his contract. We accept that.”

Even more, we understand it.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @Globe_Tara.