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Recent coronavirus outbreaks complicate an already difficult return to sports

Tennis star Novak Djokovic and his wife Jelena both tested positive for COVID-19.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic and his wife Jelena both tested positive for COVID-19.ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

Baseball finally stopped bickering long enough to reach an agreement on how and when to start the season, resolving disputes over prorated salaries and truncated schedules in time to set a late July opener.

Now all they have to do is figure out how to do it amid a pandemic.

And as the rest of the sports world has been showing us with increasing regularity, that’s not so easy to do, not as the COVID-19 virus remains impossible to contain.

How each sport plans to mitigate the risk of infection and deal with diagnosed cases has created an unprecedented element to the conversation. From the NBA’s Disney World bubble to the NHL’s hub cities plan, from baseball’s limited travel schedule to golf returning with no fans, the models are as disparate as the sports themselves, giving us a real-time study in what might work and what might not.

What they all inevitably will have in common are positive tests.

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Start with Wednesday’s news that Brooks Koepka and Graeme McDowell withdrew from the Travelers PGA tournament because their caddies tested positive. They follow Nick Watney, who tested positive last Friday, and Cameron Champ, who tested positive Tuesday. Start there, and go back through a week’s worth of similar stories.

Brooks Koepka hits off the second tee Sunday at Hilton Head.
Brooks Koepka hits off the second tee Sunday at Hilton Head.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Novak Djokovic held a tennis tournament in Serbia and Croatia and he, along with his wife, fellow player Grigor Dimitrov, and even the NBA’s Nikola Jokic (who mingled with players throughout) later tested positive.

Dozens of football players at LSU went into quarantine after returning to campus to begin working out, and other college programs are facing similar outbreaks.

After five Phillies players tested positive at their spring training complex in Florida, Major League Baseball stepped in to shut down all spring training activities in both Florida and Arizona while facilities undergo deep cleaning.

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Also in Florida, where positive tests peaked to a new high Saturday, the Tampa Bay Lightning shut down their Phase 2 training program because three players as well as some staff members were COVID-positive.

And the entire Orlando Pride team pulled out of the NWSL’s debut tournament, the first event scheduled for team sports, when multiple players tested positive. Contact tracing tied it to some players frequenting the same bar, a reminder that players’ personal lives have to be part of any plan, and a warning of how difficult that can be to govern.

So while summer officially arrived over the weekend, the sports world was hit with a pretty big bucket of cold water. For all the optimism and hope about a return, enormous issues remain in managing a virus that continues to spread so unpredictably.

As Dr. Rand McClain, the chief medical officer of LCR Health who treats many professional athletes, summed up: “It’s not possible to reduce the risk to zero. It always comes down to risk versus reward, or as some would say, a risk/tolerance equation. There is no perfect answer.”


Seemingly every team or program that gets back to work is releasing details of its safety measures. Boston College issued its Monday. The NHL is still committed to crowning a Stanley Cup champion but hasn’t solidified protocols for Phase 3 and 4 of its restart plan. The NBA wrote up an extensive plan for its Disney World bubble, but the Florida location continues to leave many players unsure of the wisdom of returning.

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The NFL, still intent on holding training camps come August, reportedly advised teams about creating different tiers of personnel and setting up guidelines for how those groups should interact. But as the ESPN report that provided those details warned, “There already have been heated discussions within teams as to who ends up in which tier.”

Baseball will make postgame showers optional.

Avery Bradley said he won't take part in the restart.
Avery Bradley said he won't take part in the restart.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

It’s just so hard to predict how this will all go. There are those like the Lakers’ Avery Bradley, who considers the risk of infection too great for at-risk family members and is opting not to play. Others could come back to find their performance adversely affected by anxiety or increased risk of injury.

“I would suspect they’re feeling the range of emotions from depression to anxiety, fear, absolutely,” said Dr. Lani Lawrence, certified mental performance consultant and executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, in a phone interview.

“On one level with COVID-19, which is not just impacting their health, but family members they might be staying with, God forbid elderly family members at risk, to know you could potentially be a contagion, not be symptomatic and still pass the virus.

“That fear of either getting COVID or passing it along to someone you love, and I also think there is a fear of injury, that if you return to play, not playing at the level you were before. Even though your body is rested, your mind still thinks you’re at a certain level and you may try to do something your body is not ready to do. That could impact your career, forget about a season.”

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These are the type of concerns Patriots players Devin and Jason McCourty spoke to in their weekly podcast Sunday.

“I think everybody’s nervous, because the norm is that we just go to work — we put in a lot of work, we bond together, we lift, we’re in close quarters,” said Devin. “It feels like that’s all being taken away from us, so I don’t know how to react. I don’t know what’s it’s going to be.”

Jason said he’s been working out in Nashville on the same high school field that was used by some 49ers players who later tested positive.

Jason (left) and Devin McCourty have talked about the anxiety that comes with a possible return to action.
Jason (left) and Devin McCourty have talked about the anxiety that comes with a possible return to action.Jim Davis

“It’s kind of scary because something like that, I think it was probably just offense, so they probably had maybe 10 guys out there,” he said. “When you think about the future, if it’s hard for 10 guys just to get together to do little passing drills or anything of that nature, to think about somewhere between 53 and 90 guys in a training camp, it’s going to be insane. So I don’t know how that’s going to turn out.”

Nobody does. But as McClain points out, for the professional athletes in his care, the intent on playing again has been universal. Even as the number of cases rises, the mortality rate is dropping, especially among the younger demographic. For athletes in peak physical condition, a positive test isn’t likely to have dire consequences.

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“The epidemiology and odds makes it scary; you don’t have your arms around it,” said McClain. “You read about the case of a young, healthy man with a terrible outcome and think ‘that could be me.’ That’s scary. The odds are against it, but that’s the rub. There are exceptions.

“For what it’s worth — and I have very little insider information — but from the outside two months ago, I would have said unequivocally no way to the NBA or any contact sport this season. There was no data, the transmission rate and mortality rate was crazy scary.

“As of today, I would say the issue is more outside the realm of the medical and more political or financial.”

Baseball finally seemed to get past its financial/political hurdles. But the work against the virus is just getting started.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.