Players, not owners or fans, at risk as sports return

Slowly but surely, sports are returning. Korean baseball and Germany’s Bundesliga are already back, early beneficiaries of their countries’ lauded handling of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The United States still leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and yet the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS and others are all making plans to resume playing games in empty arenas as soon as next month. The governors of huge states like New York and California gave their blessing earlier this week. This is happening. Probably soon.

It won’t be the same as before right away, as the Bundesliga’s restart last weekend showed. But the prospect of a familiar diversion, a little slice of normalcy, is still a welcome development for sports fans and, at risk of overstating it, a small symbol of hope for the four billion people — or about half the world’s population — who have been under some sort of lockdown for coming up on three months now, anxious for any clear sign that the biggest global crisis since the second World War is abating.

Everyone wants sports back. Fans do. Stadium workers do. The owners certainly do. And so too do the players, provided of course that every precaution is taken to ensure their health. The early signs suggest that’s the case. Coaches in South Korea and Germany are required to wear masks. Borussia Dortmund’s players celebrated the first Bundesliga goal in nine weeks by social distancing.

But the stark and frightening reality is that leagues can’t guarantee that none of their athletes will get infected by the coronavirus, an illness that has already caused hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world since January, during the course of participating in these games.

Hertha Berlin’s players were reprimanded after celebrating a goal last weekend against Hoffenheim with a group hug, but playing games carries a risk of infection no matter what precautions are taken. (Thomas Kienzle/Getty)


For all the measures being taken, there is something patently absurd about being able to violently slide-tackle an opponent but not help them up afterward. Hertha Berlin’s players were reprimanded for hugging after they scored last weekend, but they also all got on the team bus after the match, then returned to their own homes and families.

According to the World Health Organization, there will be risk involved in bringing people together for the foreseeable future. As the planet’s most popular (and most profitable) sport, soccer is at the forefront of the push to return to the field. The Premier League is aiming for this summer. MLS appears the closest among the big five North American circuits.

The question is, how much risk is acceptable, and who decides?

Last month, Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero said that many Prem players were scared to suit up anytime soon. (Like the U.S., England has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.) Watford captain Troy Deeney and several teammates refused to train this week after a player and two staffers tested positive. Deeney said he feared infecting his 5-month-old son, who has had breathing difficulties.

“I don’t want to come home and put him in more danger,” he said.

Several MLS players have spoken out this week as the top soccer league in the U.S. and Canada inches closer to its possible restart.

“This is the only time in my career that I’ve felt a situation is bigger than the entertainment needs of fans,” Chicago Fire forward C.J. Sapong wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Call me crazy, but to increase risk financially, physically and MENTALLY with little reward is a wild ask.”

Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that the MLS Players Association has asked the league to explain in detail how they would handle a list of hypothetical situations pertaining to the health and safety of its membership. Both sides have an obvious incentive to reach an agreement to play, given the many millions of dollars at stake.

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Still, to many …

“This all feels a little bit rushed,” Philadelphia Union and USMNT veteran Alejandro Bedoya told ESPN Wednesday. “We’re taking all the risk.”

Humans have always been willing to accept some level of risk, whether it’s getting in a car or, more recently, simply going to the grocery store, in order to live their lives. Professional athletes are risk-takers by nature. Statistically, they’re among the least likely to die from COVID-19.

That doesn’t mean that athletes want to gamble with their lives unnecessarily — not when there are countless examples of young and otherwise heathy people succumbing to a virus that scientists continue to say they still don’t know much about.

We all want sports to come back as soon as possible. We all want to believe there is a way to do it safely, but that’s also easy for us to say. Given the potential cost to those actually involved, the dangers of getting it wrong can’t be overlooked.

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