A coronavirus mess in Russian soccer raises nightmarish questions for American sports
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has a big task ahead of him. (Stacy Revere / Getty Images)
The NBA nightmare scenario occurred in two coastal cities in southwestern Russia, 6,000 miles from Disney World last week.
On Wednesday, 48 hours before a Russian Premier League football match, six FC Rostov players tested positive for the corona virus.
On Friday, when Rostov's game started at PFC Sochi, these six players and all of their teammates at home were self-isolating.
In the next two hours, a patchwork group of substitutes lost 10: 1. Rostov's push for a place in the Champions League froze. And a terrifying question faced by every major sport found a terrifying answer.
The RPL has resumed amid a pandemic that has not brought its nation into line with strict coronavirus protocols, as the American leagues will do in the coming weeks. And like the American leagues, it has learned that the 100-page documents and intense plans are the easy part.
"Like most war plans," said Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt, "they're great until the war begins."
The hard part is what happens when the virus tears them apart.
The NBA's protocols are not those of the RPL, and US sports should be better protected. But what happens when Rostov-lite meets Disney? When do some NBA stars test positive the day before the conference semifinals? Or if a starting quarterback is forced into quarantine on the eve of a rivalry game? So what?
The headache when dealing with positive tests
It remains to be seen whether COVID-19 infiltrates sports bladders. The German Bundesliga and other western European top football leagues have so far evaded this. But the American leagues are concerned. The virus spreads to Florida, where the NBA, WNBA and MLS will camp next month. Bubble building "is a sensible task," says Jared Baeten, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. "But it has to go hand in hand with good public health measures in the surrounding communities."
And this is where European and American environments differ. Great Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany reported 2,476 cases together on Saturday. 4,049 were reported in Florida alone. While these European nations have suppressed the virus, it is rising again in the United States. Florida is more like Russia than Germany. For this reason, the situation in Rostov, coupled with outbreaks in MLB and college football, as well as positive tests in NWSL, MLS and NFL, is causing concern.
And not just individual health concerns. This is of the utmost importance, or at least it should be, but the sport still seems ready to move forward. The other concern is whether they can keep going with a genuine product. Technically speaking, Rostov continued to play despite the positive tests. But the game on Friday was a farce.
Coronavirus navigation in European football shows the lack of painless solutions for positive tests. A team-wide quarantine was required in Russia. The RPL proposed to postpone the games, but only if both teams could agree to a new date. Rostov's opponent Sochi declined. So Rostov called a youth team back from vacation to play against professionals. The children had not exercised in three months. They were smashed.
However, the shift alternative brings with it alternative headaches. Russia will try after three Dynamo Moscow players tested positive on Saturday. Germany tried it when two players from second division club Dynamo Dresden tested positive for COVID-19 last month. The entire team was quarantined to "break an infection chain," as the doctor put it. Games have been postponed. For Dresden, however, this meant eight games in 22 days, an arduous track race in which the club relegated and the players were in tears.
"The [German league] doesn't care," said one in an emotional post-game interview. "We are the ones who pay the damn price."
Sports leagues have packed rigid schedules into finite periods. The NBA has set start dates for each round of its playoffs. The flexibility is limited. A large number of shifts is not possible. According to experts, expanded isolation in the entire team is the surest answer to a positive test. This is essentially what the CDC recommends to the public. But, as Schaffner says, "it throws the whole schedule out of hand".
For this reason, the NBA seems ready to try another strategy.
How would the NBA deal with a coronavirus outbreak?
According to experts, the NBA's plan to test players "regularly" and in some cases daily should prevent a Rostov-like outbreak. In theory, six positive tests should not appear in one batch. According to Zachory Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University, the "upfront investment" should limit the spread from player to player in frequent tests. And the NBA's 113-page Health and Safety Protocols document, which was distributed last week, makes it clear that a positive test doesn't stop the league.
However, it could still wreak havoc.
"It seems almost impossible to imagine that the virus will not get into the bladder," says Baeten. So let's imagine that this is the case in early September. Imagine that the day between games 3 and 4 of the semester of the Eastern Conference, Player X - a starter for Team A - is positive. Then consider the following:
Player X is quarantined and has not been played for at least 14 days, leaving Team A understaffed.
Even if Player X tested negative 24 hours earlier, experts say there is a possibility that he infected every player he shared the word with during the third game, or anyone else he was in close contact with throughout the day has come.
Anyone infected by Player X in Game 3 and tested the next day will almost certainly return a false negative. And they'll probably do it again the next day. And the day after. The virus takes time to incubate. Officials only know how many peers infected Player X a few days after Player X's positive test.
All players he has infected can now spread the virus to others before they test themselves positive.
Testing is useful, but fallible. For this reason, the isolation of all "close contacts" of a COVID-positive individual has become common practice both in society and in the sports leagues. In the NBA, however, the isolation of "close contacts" would require shifts or losses. One or two could be bearable. It is not a significant number.
So let's say the league postpones game 4 and reschedules it for the next day, with plans to move forward. ...
What if several opponents refused to play knowing that teammates from player X - players Y and Z - could be contagious?
What if team A wins game 4 and wins the series - and then, one day later, players Y and Z test positive? Will the conference finale continue if Team A misses three of their best players? Do other teammates need to isolate because they stayed in "close contact" with players Y and Z? Does the whole damn thing have a big asterisk next to it?
There are really only two scenarios that do not lead to a competitive mess. The first is that the bladder turns out to be impermeable. The second is that this is not the case, but that any potential outbreak is nipped in the bud, protocols prevent positive tests from multiplying, and are forgiving enough for the season to continue.
According to experts, the first scenario is unlikely.
In short, the second requires constant vigilance, immediate adjustments, and good luck. Three months of it.
Every professional sports league will face some versions of these questions in 2020. While everything remains theoretical, they can be wiped off for the time being. If the virus stops, they inevitably knock without good answers. Just more questions.
Leagues and schools want money and society wants normalcy, but does sport represent it when it is extremely abnormal? When a mediocre college football team wins their conference by loss? When a 5-seed wins an NBA title because the coronavirus has cleared its way? So what? What was the point? Were all the ridiculous emergency plans and health risks and fears and potentially damaged lungs worthwhile?
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