December is usually a great time on the sports calendar. The NFL playoff race heats up. The NBA nears its annual Christmas showcase. College football bowl games are approaching, and the NHL and college basketball are in full swing.
But that calendar has been rocked this week with an issue that just won’t go away: the coronavirus.
As COVID-19 cases surge across the country, the sports world has been hard hit with outbreaks. More than a third of the Washington Football Team’s roster — 21 players — are unlikely for Sunday’s game. Those 21 are among the more than 160 athletes across the NFL, NHL and NBA who have tested positive since Monday — leaving all three leagues scrambling to adjust protocols and find ways to curb the rapid spread.
From the NFL’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Baker Mayfield to the NBA’s James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, sports’ biggest stars are among those being sidelined by the virus. For teams such as Washington, the widespread outbreaks have called into question just how competitive they can be. The Cleveland Browns have 19 players out ahead of this weekend’s game. Cleveland and Washington are both fighting for playoff spots.
The latest wave comes as the omicron variant reaches the U.S., triggering new rounds of closures for schools and businesses and fueling talk among politicians of tighter mask and vaccine mandates — even European-style emergency lockdowns.
Some doctors, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, expect omicron to soon become the dominant strand in the country. In the NFL, chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told reporters the league believes the variant is responsible for the large uptick in cases.
In a three-day span of Monday through Wednesday, the NFL had about 100 cases — the biggest in-season stretch since the pandemic started.
“At some point, you feel like you’re fighting a ghost,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank told reporters at this week’s owners meetings. “You don’t know where to swing.”
Searching for solutions
Executives from a number of leagues were communicating with their union counterparts this week, all going back and forth trying to answer one complicated question: What else can be done?
Sports leagues have taken big swings at trying to limit the virus, whether it was spending millions to host “bubble” environments or establishing in-depth testing protocols and strict procedures that accompanied altered schedules.
Still, with this new wave, more changes are coming.
The NFL announced Thursday that it will include more ways for vaccinated players to return from quarantine. Previously, vaccinated players who tested positive could return only if they produced a negative test twice within 24 hours of each other and received medical clearance to return. Now, there are multiple ways for vaccinated players to return quicker, especially if they are asymptomatic. Notably, asymptomatic players can return as soon as they can produce two negative tests in the same day — easing the barrier for entry.
However, the changes do not include daily testing — something the players’ union has been pushing for, while the NFL maintains it’s unnecessary. Vaccinated players will continue to test weekly, while the unvaccinated will continue to be tested daily. The only instance in which vaccinated individuals will test daily is if a team is in “enhanced protocols” because of an outbreak.
The NFL also has mandated booster shots for Tier 1 and 2 non-player personnel — which includes coaches and staffers who interact in person with players. Such personnel must comply by Dec. 27.
“We’re entering a new phase of the pandemic, different than we’ve seen before,” Dr. Sills said. “We can’t apply 2020 solutions to the 2021 problems we’re having.”
The NBA and NHL, meanwhile, have taken measures the NFL has avoided — they’ve postponed games.
With the Chicago Bulls losing 10 players to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, the NBA postponed scheduled games for Tuesday and Thursday — the league’s first schedule adjustment of the season. The NHL has postponed nine games, with the first coming in November.
The preference of the NBA and NHL is to keep schedules intact as much as possible. That’s why the leagues and their players’ unions are looking to ramp up testing. The NHL and its players union agreed Wednesday to implement enhanced measures through at least Jan. 7, which include daily testing and asking individuals to limit social interactions outside hotels, the rink and home.
According to ESPN, 60 NBA players have entered health and safety protocols — 43 of whom have come in the last two weeks. In the NHL, 30 players and staff members were added to the league’s protocols over a span of 48 hours (Monday to Tuesday).
The NBA has tried to give players incentives to get boosters. Though 97% of players are vaccinated, the league implemented a Friday deadline for players to receive a booster or be subject to more stringent protocols, such as daily testing. More than 60% of players have received boosters, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Elsewhere, the Toronto Raptors announced they would be limiting capacity at their home stadium — implementing a 50% capacity limit with cases on the uptick.
“We don’t want to live in fear of this virus, but COVID is a persistent enemy,” Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri told reporters. “Together, we’ll defeat it.”
COVID-19 hits hard
No team in professional sports is dealing with a more dire situation than the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
As of Wednesday, the Flames had 27 team personnel in COVID-19 protocols — 16 players, three coaches and eight staff members. The troubling surge led the NHL on Monday to postpone the Flames’ contests on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
The day after the NHL made its decision on the Flames, the league postponed Carolina’s game on Tuesday after four Hurricanes players tested positive to increase their COVID list total to seven.
Both the Flames and the Hurricanes said during training camp that their teams had 100% vaccination rates.
“Everyone did what we had to do,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Tuesday. “We got vaccinated. We did our part. I don’t know what else there is to do. … The good news is that they’re not getting sick. I think that’s the whole point of the vaccination: You weren’t gonna get sick. I don’t think it was going to prevent you from getting it, so that’s the world we live in right now.”
That sentiment — “We did our part” — has been increasingly common during this surge. Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay echoed a similar message after his team suffered an outbreak that has left 16 players on the NFL’s COVID-19 reserve list. The NFL touts a 94% vaccination rate among players, while the NHL says every player but one — Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi — is vaccinated.
But not everyone has chosen to get the shot. There are still skeptics — from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Antonio Brown to Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, all of whom have had vaccine controversies this year.
If there is any lesson this week has reinforced it’s that the virus doesn’t care about timing. Teams like Washington and the Browns are in the thick of postseason hunts, and with only four games left in the NFL’s regular season, a COVID-19 outbreak could very well be the reason a team ends up on the outside looking in.
The virus puts a physical and mental strain on teams. Beyond those not available because of the positive tests, those left short-handed have to pick up the slack. Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant played all but five minutes of his team’s overtime win over the Raptors with seven teammates in health and safety protocols.
Meanwhile, for the players who contract COVID-19, the effects are wide-ranging. Some athletes are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, and they’re crediting the vaccine for their quick recoveries. For others, like Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, the virus took a toll.
“I really thought I wasn’t gonna make it,” said Embiid, who is vaccinated, in late November. “It was that bad, so I’m just thankful to be sitting here.”
And as cases continue to expand, one can’t help but wonder who’s next.
“I used to check NBA and college basketball scores all night,” former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy tweeted. “Now it seems all I do is check which coaches and players are out due to Covid protocols.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.