This story was reported and written by ESPN’s Malika Andrews, Kyle Bonagura, Jeff Carlisle, Heather Dinich, Dan Graziano, Tom Hamilton, Baxter Holmes, Emily Kaplan, Zach Lowe, Jeff Passan, Marc Raimondi, Kevin Seifert, Ramona Shelburne, Mechelle Voepel and Brian Windhorst.
A SKELETON STAFF of about 150 gathered inside the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, Georgia, for the Professional Bull Riders two-day Gwinnett Invitational. It was March 15 — just days after the NBA and NHL suspended their seasons indefinitely and hours after the NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Still, cowboys from around the country would compete before a television-only and digital streaming audience in one of the last professional sporting events to be held in the United States before the PBR, too, shut down.
But just 4½ weeks later, the PBR announced it would hold a for-TV-only event April 25-26 at Lazy E Arena and Ranch located on 167 fenced acres near Guthrie, Oklahoma. Just like at the Gwinnett Invitational, no fans would be present. One of the last sports to close would become one of the first to return.
“That’s when the phone started ringing,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason says.
On the line were executives from more than 15 sports leagues, including NASCAR, the Indian Premier League (IPL), CONCACAF, La Liga, the WTA and the NBA. The UFC, whose April 18 event had been canceled after execs from broadcast partner ESPN asked UFC president Dana White to “stand down,” called too. It was looking for information to help make good on White’s declaration that the UFC would be “the first sport back.”
Each league had the same fundamental questions:
How are you opening back up? What are your policies and procedures? How do you handle testing? Staffing? And what documents did you provide to various local and state officials to receive approval?
With insight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PBR created a 29-page “return to competition” plan, which the city of Guthrie, Logan County and the Oklahoma governor’s office all signed off on.
People would be organized into groups of 10 or fewer and they wouldn’t have contact with other groups. Anyone entering the arena would be screened, responding to a CDC questionnaire while having their temperature checked. Anyone with symptoms would be isolated. Everyone would be required to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from anyone else.
Gleason was more than happy to share the 29-page document with anyone who asked.
“We want to see all sports back,” Gleason says, “not just bull riding.”
On a recent NBA board of governors call, David Weiss, the NBA’s senior vice president of player matters, highlighted scientific developments, everything from nasal swabs and saliva testing to antiviral cocktails, before bringing owners up to speed on the landscape across various sports — MLB, golf, UFC, soccer. The tests they’ve used or will use, target start dates, regulatory issues. The many how-to manuals like the PBR’s.
“The aim must not be to ‘guarantee the 100% safety of all participants’, since this is likely to prove impossible,” reads one such memo, this from the Deutsche Fußball Liga’s Sports Medicine Special Match Operations Task Force. “The idea is to ensure a medically justifiable risk based on the significance of football (in societal, socio-political and economic terms) and on the development of the pandemic.”
“Look, there is a nonzero risk to players that being infected with COVID-19 could lead to major complications.”
Dr. Vivek Murthy
Two months in, the landscape has shifted, from fear of one positive test shutting down a season to the gradual acceptance of risk. Leagues are moving from concerns over public perception due to the sheer volume of tests they’ll require to the hopeful development of processes and guidelines. Experts in medicine, epidemiology and virology are helping commissioners approach this unprecedented crisis, and leagues are carefully studying their counterparts — both foreign and domestic — to determine how to implement strategies of their own.
There has been an allure to returning first and fast during the coronavirus pandemic. Amid a dehydrated landscape exists the potential for sky-high television ratings and much-needed revenue, but also the very real risk of failure — of starting too soon and stumbling. The memos and proposals, however, have signaled the slow trickle of returns. PBR has hosted two events since its late April competition. The UFC completed three cards in one week. NASCAR carried out a 400-mile race at Darlington on Sunday and another race on Wednesday. The Bundesliga returned over the weekend after just 10 days of training. Golf and boxing have dates scheduled.
The climb back to sports normalcy is “not going to be easy,” says Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general and one of two key advisers to the NBA during the pandemic. “There is no clear national plan on how to open up safely. So many businesses and schools and sports teams are trying to figure this out on their own.”
And the paths they’re attempting to follow are still being charted.
OVER THE PAST two months, as Major League Baseball has grappled with a present stuck in neutral and a future in question, officials from the league have consulted with state and federal officials for countless hours trying to create a road map with no compass. Rob Manfred, MLB’s commissioner, spends much of his day on the phone and video chats, lobbying politicians and whipping support for baseball’s return, always cognizant that the most powerful man in the world is one tap away on his iPhone screen
“If the commissioner needs to talk with the president,” a White House official said, “he calls him right up.”
Manfred is no different from other league heads, exhorted by President Trump to bring sports back. And yet he’s in a clear position to do so, with his league ever on the cusp of a season that has not begun — and won’t until its power brokers navigate the byzantine landscape wrought by the coronavirus. What the sport once took for granted — the seemingly simple act of putting on a baseball game — now necessitates multifarious plans, contingency plans and contingency plans for the contingency plans. It is an exercise in fragility.
Tim Kurkjian says he would guess that there will be some sort of baseball taking place this summer but doesn’t know what rumors and plans to believe at the moment.
From the moment it shut down spring training March 13, MLB has coped with circumstances not faced by its brethren. The NBA and NHL had played more than 80% of their regular seasons. The NFL was four months from training camps opening. MLB’s opening day was less than two weeks away.
As the spread of the coronavirus shut down the nation, MLB scrambled to hammer out a deal with the MLB Players Association on March 27 that negated the players’ ability to sue for salaries in the case of a lost season — the cost: $170 million guaranteed and full service time for the players — and began the process of trying to avoid that doomsday scenario.
It has proved tricky, with logistical issues scuttling some options and financial fears stymieing others. MLB landed on its current plan, to open in as many home stadiums as possible as soon as July, aware that it’s rife with potential pitfalls and might never get off the ground at all.
Inside the commissioner’s office, staffers divvied up responsibility over the foundational elements of any return: testing, safety protocols, stadium operations, scheduling, player relations, rules and economics. They have fielded calls from teams panicked over worsening financial situations. They have sought the guidance of Dr. Ali Khan, a longtime CDC official who’s among the most experienced in the country at dealing with pandemics. And now they find themselves in a most uncomfortable position: close enough to baseball that optimism is palpable; far enough away that any number of issues could wreck a comeback.
The latest step came in the form of a comprehensive 67-page draft that endeavored to cover the breadth of health-and-safety issues each league will face as it attempts to return. MLB sent the document to the union Friday, and while players gawked at some of its propositions — the suggestion that players not shower after games drew the ire of many — they understood its intent. For baseball, or any sport, to return will necessitate a withdrawal from many of the comforts to which players have grown accustomed. The life they’ve known won’t be the life they live.
The day-to-day details are negotiable and the gap bridgeable. Proving more difficult is the ability to find détente on financial issues. Owners want players to take a pay cut on top of one mandated by the March agreement, which states players be given a prorated salary depending on the number of games played. Players continue to hold firm, confident that the language guaranteeing them a pro rata share is unassailable. Talks, accordingly, have grown tense. Neither side has made an official proposal. Even if they agree on a deal that covers money and health, MLB needs federal, state and local officials to rubber-stamp play in home cities, a charge complicated by the varying rates of infection and presence of the coronavirus.
And then, if baseball can wrangle those significant challenges, comes the unknown: How do teams travel regularly — and travel safely — around the country during a pandemic?
There will be controversy, and there will be fear, and there will be risk, because all three are part and parcel with the return of sports. None of those is stopping baseball, not yet at least. Damn the torpedoes, baseball is saying. Damn the torpedoes, and play ball.
IT TOOK A 51-page plan to restart Bundesliga. The DFL’s task force, headed by Dr. Tim Meyer, the German national team doctor and medical director of the Institute of Sports and Preventive Medicine at Saarland University, received approval from German chancellor Angela Merkel on May 6. Two days later teams were in a seven-day quarantine ahead of the league’s return.
Players are tested twice a week and, if they return a positive result, are placed into 14-day isolation. Games have a strict limit on personnel — a total of 322 people are allowed in and around the stadium. Everyone except on-field players and officials wears a mask, there are no mascots, players are advised to celebrate with ankle or elbow taps and asked not to spit.
This all played out against a backdrop of empty stands — an eerie experience given German football’s fan culture. But the fans did stay away, and the five-player substitution rule — an increase from the previous three, implemented in a bid to avoid injuries after a long layoff — did not cause the game to lose momentum.
Leagues the world over are keeping a close eye on Germany to see whether its meticulously detailed model will be successful or a crushing failure. France, Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands have all canceled their seasons, but other leagues are taking tentative steps toward resumption.
The Premier League has “Project Restart,” its own plan for a hopeful reboot. On Monday, the league announced clubs could train in small groups, and on Tuesday, the results of testing were released: Six of the 748 players and staff members reported testing positive for the coronavirus and would self-isolate for seven days. To restart, the Premier League will need approval from the league, the clubs, the government and Public Health England.
In Spain, the ministry of health must give the green light — and La Liga is optimistic it may get a mid-June return. Its medical adviser is La Liga CEO Javier Tebas’ brother, Pablo Tebas Medrano, who is the leading expert on virology at the University of Pennsylvania.
For Serie A in Italy, clubs have been cleared to train in groups but still don’t know if the league will be given permission to resume. Sources say the government will call for the league to be canceled if a player or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. Serie A was the first league in Europe to suffer disruption due to the coronavirus, and with Bergamo having been devastated by the outbreak, any return to action will be tense. The Italian FA penciled in June 14 as the date, with a desire to complete the 2019-20 season by Aug. 20, but this is all still subject to government approval.
The situation is less certain in North America. Major League Soccer has given the green light to voluntary, individual workouts, but with stay-at-home orders varying across the country, not all teams have been able to get started. But MLS has been actively mapping out what a return to play would look like. At present, the league is considering a leaguewide, 26-team “mini-tournament” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, which would consist of group stage games followed by a knockout stage.
Both the league and players want the games to count for something, but whether any matches will is currently unclear.
MLS’ return-to-play effort is being led by chief medical officer Dr. Margot Putukian, who is also the director of athletic medicine and head team physician at Princeton University. But according to a source with knowledge of the situation, the league has also engaged Medical Advance Services, which advises clients on global health, infectious diseases, pandemic response and clinical medicine. Like other sport leagues, MLS and its medical advisers have been in contact with the CDC to determine best practices.
The MLS Players Association has been pushing back on some aspects of MLS’ proposal, though. The MLSPA has been consulting with Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an epidemiologist, and sources say players are concerned about leaving spouses and children behind, as well as what would happen if someone in the MLS “bubble” tests positive for COVID-19. These concerns are consistently echoed throughout players’ associations across sports. And according to multiple sources, those issues have yet to be resolved for MLS.
IT WAS THE evening of March 11. Dr. Vivek Murthy was home in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Alice, and the two were engaged in the usual evening chaos of trying to feed their two kids, ages 3 and 2. Normally, the TV isn’t on at dinner, but the former U.S. surgeon general was closely following the pandemic, so it was. Then, the news hit: The NBA was suspending its season. Murthy turned to Alice. The two didn’t say a word. But, in his mind, Murthy was considering the gravity of the moment.
The NBA has principally consulted with two experts throughout the pandemic: Murthy and Dr. David Ho, director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University. Senior vice president of player matters David Weiss has spearheaded the NBA’s return-to-play logistics planning.
Concerns of testing capacity and perception in the initial weeks have shifted to issues of protocol — the league’s position has been to closely watch other sports return to action, learn from what has gone well and adapt that information to suit its needs.
Murthy has spoken to league leaders and team owners, and, informally, to others across sports who confidentially contact him. The questions are all of the same ilk: When can fans return to games? How should they respond if someone tests positive? How often should they test athletes or staffers? How should they safely keep distance between staffers and players?
No sites have been chosen yet for play, though Las Vegas and Walt Disney World are considered front-runners. And while many NBA practice facilities are open for individual workouts, not all of them are. So does every team return to its own market to practice, or can some in closed markets send players to Orlando or another “bubble”-like site to practice?
Those questions remain, but the answers all revolve around the idea of risk tolerance.
Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman debate if it’s a good idea to have all 30 teams come back and play games when the NBA returns.
“Look, there is a nonzero risk to players that being infected with COVID-19 could lead to major complications,” Murthy says. “It depends obviously on their health and preexisting conditions. The goal here is not to be alarmist and say that this is definitely going to have severe adverse effects on any NBA player who gets infected. That’s not the case. You know, most NBA players are young and healthy and the statistics say most of them would, would ultimately be OK.”
As discussions progress between the league office and the players, it’s even more important to understand what is viable and what is available in finishing the season. The NBA and the players’ association have formed a joint committee to study return-to-play plans. In addition to the league office, it includes health experts, Chris Paul, Dwight Powell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum and Russell Westbrook, though sources say NBA commissioner Adam Silver and some players have had similar discussions informally for weeks.
In any conversations with league leaders, Murthy says he acknowledges that, yes, concerns about their season being on hold — financial or otherwise — are not insignificant. ESPN’s Bobby Marks wrote that a cancellation of the season could result in the loss of $2 billion of basketball-related income. Murthy has been outlining obstacles and encouraging teams to be in lockstep with public authorities. He describes how financial losses are painful but to reopen too haphazardly and then shut down soon after could create even more long-term financial losses.
Which brings him back to the night the NBA shut down. Silver’s decision, Murthy says, was a “signal to people that something profound about our way of life is about to change.”
Murthy considers reopening to be, in some ways, an even more powerful signal.
“For some people throughout the world of sports, there may be a temptation to move quickly here, recognizing that there may be opportunity to be one of the early [sports] that returns,” Murthy says. “But I think this can’t be a simple business decision to get viewership and market share. This has to be looked at as a broader decision that has wide support implications for public health.”
Silver, he says, gets that. And though the most pressing concern is the resumption of the 2019-20 season, acting too quickly puts future seasons in jeopardy. “The [collective bargaining agreement],” Silver told players on a conference call last week, “was not built to handle pandemics.”
THE WNBA WAS scheduled to start its 24th season on May 15. Instead, on that day, commissioner Cathy Engelbert was detailing scenarios that could get the league to a potential start in 2020. Like many at home, she is eager to return to some semblance of normalcy.
“I even miss my commute into the city,” Engelbert said. She has been working from home in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, instead of at the NBA/WNBA headquarters in Manhattan. Her home is also where she announced the first-round picks during April’s WNBA draft telecast.
The WNBA normally has a 34-game regular season, followed by single-elimination first- and second-round playoff games, and then best-of-five series for the semifinals and finals. Because of the monthlong break that was scheduled for the Olympics, the 2020 WNBA season wasn’t set to end until mid-October. Engelbert said the league doesn’t have any last-possible-start dates in mind, though several players compete overseas in the winter months. However, that, too, is uncertain because of the pandemic.
“It may be too late to play our full season at some point; we’re probably going to come up on that by early July,” Engelbert said. “But as we look at some of the more realistic scenarios of the number of games we could get in with a competitive playoff structure, you could get later in the summer as a start time. And you could go to different formats. I think our players are open to that as well.”
Engelbert also announced that the WNBA will begin paying players on time June 1, but that means rosters must be trimmed to the regulation 12 by May 26, without the benefit of training camps.
The WNBA is sharing expert information with the NBA, according to Engelbert, and has remained focused foremost on player health and safety. And, of course, it is developing its own plans, which sources say would likely include a shortened season.
As with the NBA, it’s probably safest and easiest for the WNBA to play at a single site as opposed to traveling between home cities. Las Vegas, where the Aces played host to the WNBA All-Star Game last summer and already have MGM as a key sponsor, is among several destinations that have been discussed, sources said. In the latest round of collective bargaining negotiations, players fought hard for increased child care benefits, and that has been at the forefront of discussions for any “single-site” concept as well.
IN THE FIRST week of March, the NHL held its annual general managers meetings at the Boca Beach Club in Boca Raton, Florida. Commissioner Gary Bettman boasted that the NHL was healthier than ever. Bettman said the salary cap could rise to as much as $88.2 million next season — a significant uptick from the current ceiling of $81.5 million — as the league got ready to introduce puck and player tracking in the 2020 playoffs (a yearslong initiative) and welcome its 32nd team, Seattle, in 2021.
The coronavirus was bubbling on the league’s radar, but at the GM meetings, NHL leaders were only beginning to explore contingency plans, and cautioned that talk of postponing or even canceling games was premature. “I think it’s very unlikely — knock on wood, I’m hopeful — that we would progress to a stage where we have to consider something that dramatic,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on March 2.
Ten days later, the NHL paused its season and quickly retained Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease of Long Island Jewish Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital in New York, as a consultant. Farber chats with Bettman and Daly regularly, and provides his expert opinion to the league’s board of governors on conference calls. Players were told on March 16 that they could return to their home countries, as the league understood it would be a long road back. Some 17% of NHL players are currently outside of North America.
The NHL is projected to lose $1.2 billion if it can’t resume the season or complete the playoffs, so the financial pressure is real. The league could recoup about half of that money if it completes the season — and the NHL is getting strong encouragement from its U.S. TV partner, NBC, as broadcast windows in July and August are open because the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. But the NHL knows it can return only if it gets the OK from local governments and health officials.
As much as the money matters — and really, that’s what is driving the urgency to return — the league is cautious of overstepping boundaries and the public backlash around that. For example, the NHL advised teams not to privately procure tests for players, especially asymptomatic ones, and to follow guidance from local health authorities. As Bettman said last week, “We certainly can’t be jumping the line in front of medical needs.”
On calls, the board of governors has asked Farber about issues ranging from the likeliness an infection could spread within a team to the health measures needed to resume play. Farber has stressed that point-of-care testing units would be essential once they are widely available. Farber also believes reducing travel will be critical upon return, which explains why the NHL has been considering a plan to pick up play this summer in two to four “hub” cities. The league is acutely aware that getting fans back in arenas is going to be a challenge, as is a potential second wave of the virus this fall — Bettman has warned that next season could start as late as December.
The NHL has been working collaboratively with the NHLPA (their relationship, through this, has been quite strong). The NHLPA retained its own expert, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and scientist based in Toronto, but also has relied on the voices of players. For example, when the NHL presented a “bubble” concept, it received pushback from several veterans, who said they would agree to be sequestered for months at a hotel only if members of their families could come too. The NHL is expected to accommodate that. Bettman is absorbing input from all parties — his team owners, of course, but also health experts, government officials, media executives, GMs and players — but ultimately, the timing of the league’s return to the ice will come down to him.
THE 2020 NFL DRAFT was supposed to be a decadent, over-the-top event where players would arrive by boat and walk a red carpet constructed on top of the Bellagio fountains. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL elected to move ahead with the draft as scheduled, but pivoted to a virtual event.
If team executives — like Saints general manager Mickey Loomis — were in favor of delaying the draft, they were told not to say so publicly. In a memo sent to NFL chief executives, club presidents, general managers and head coaches on March 26, commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that he didn’t want them to express any public opinions about the direction of the draft.
“Public discussion of issues relating to the Draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action,” the memo read.
That sentiment has recurred as the NFL tries to operate under the guise of business as usual. Outwardly, league executives have refused to entertain questions about COVID-19 contingencies. Unlike leagues that came to a screeching halt midseason and have been scrambling to get up and running, the NFL has leaned into having the luxury of time.
While other sports leagues have sent out trial balloons and formed contingency plans for their contingency plans, the NFL has publicly marched to the beat of optimism. It even unveiled the 2020-2021 schedule, with the first game set to be played on Sept. 10.
But before that can happen, practice facilities must open. On May 6, the NFL sent out a memo instructing each team to put together a specific, market-based plan on reopening by May 15. In the memo, Goodell again warned teams about “uninformed commentary that speculates on how individual clubs or the league will address a range of hypothetical contingencies,” reiterating that it “serves no constructive purpose and instead confuses our fans and business partners.”
The NFL Players Association has formed a COVID-19 task force chaired by Dr. Thom Mayer, who has been the NFLPA’s medical director for decades. Mayer says the group is composed of scientists from Harvard, Duke, the National Academy of Medicine and personnel from Dr. Anthony Fauci’s office.
“While we have more time than baseball and other leagues, it’s certainly not an unlimited amount of time,” Mayer told ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe.
Meanwhile, the league has been consulting with doctors from the Infection Control Education for Major Sports — a group it has worked with for six years. In an interview with ESPN, Dr. Christopher Hostler, one of the epidemiologists consulted, said his job consists of delivering information to league executives and trainers and doctors from 32 teams. But the data, he says, is “very well accepted” by the league. Hostler declined to say what specific advice he is providing, citing a confidentiality agreement.
In consultation with the ICEMS, however, the league sent a five-page memo to teams detailing the best practices to implement when opening their facilities.
In the memo, which has been reviewed by ESPN, teams are instructed to form an Infection Response Team with a local physician, a club infection control officer, the team’s head athletic trainer, the team’s chief security officer, a mental health clinician, a facility manager and a human resources director.
“We fully well expect that we will have positive cases that arise,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said on Tuesday. “Because we think that this disease will remain endemic in society, it shouldn’t be a surprise that new positive cases arise. Our challenge is to identify them as quickly as possible and prevent spread to any other participants.”
If anyone on a team starts to experience COVID-19 symptoms, the memo says, the infection control officer is the designated first point of contact. The memo also urges clubs to ensure that individuals are 6 feet apart when possible, mandates face coverings for all employees, and asks people to take their temperature prior to going to the facility.
Goodell gave teams permission to begin opening facilities — in a limited way — beginning on May 19, so long as it doesn’t conflict with local government guidelines.
Still, Dr. Deverick Anderson — one of the consultants for the NFL — tells ESPN there are no scenarios in the foreseeable future that do not involve some level of risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“There is no such thing as a zero-risk scenario inside or outside sports and that has always been a really important part of the messaging we are trying to provide when discussing this issue with teams,” Anderson says. “We are not here to eliminate risk; we are here to try and reduce risk.”
BIG TEN COMMISSIONER Kevin Warren first heard of the coronavirus through a casual conversation with his good friend Dr. Selwyn M. Vickers, the dean of the UAB School of Medicine. The two talk and pray together once a week, and in early February, Vickers cautioned his friend, “it’s something you need to make sure you keep your eyes on.”
Warren, who had been on the job for all of a month after leaving his position as COO of the Minnesota Vikings, heeded the advice and began reading about the virus. By March 7, he had formed a 14-member task force on emerging infectious diseases chaired by Nebraska’s Dr. Chris Kratochvil and comprised of a representative from every other Big Ten school. Warren says he has been meeting with his task force once a week for an hour since March.
“I didn’t know what extent this would get to,” Warren says.
Nobody did, and two months later, the most powerful people in college sports acknowledge they still don’t know what lies ahead.
Heather Dinich speaks on the precautions being taken to prepare college football for its fall return.
On Wednesday, the NCAA’s Division I council voted to allow student-athletes in football and basketball to return to campus for voluntary workouts as early as June 1, but that doesn’t mean everyone will. Some conferences are making collective decisions, while others are allowing individual schools to determine whether it’s safe to allow student-athletes to return.
While there is still no timetable for practices and games to resume, NCAA president Mark Emmert has made it clear that state officials, health experts and university presidents will determine when college sports return — not the NCAA or even the conferences themselves.
“These are localized decisions,” Emmert says. “Local campuses have to decide are we opening up and are we bringing students back to play sports. The NCAA doesn’t mandate that, nor should it. The schools themselves have to make those choices.”
The NCAA’s own coronavirus advisory panel, led by Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, was announced on March 3. The group includes a former U.S. surgeon general, two individuals who work with the CDC, a former NYPD detective who ran counterterrorism investigations and headed security for the U.S. Open, and Dr. Amesh Adalja, whose specialties include “infectious diseases, pandemic preparedness and biosecurity.”
While the tentative Aug. 29 kickoffs for college football loom — with more unknowns and hypotheticals than answers — the NCAA and conference commissioners have taken different approaches in whom they are leaning on in the scientific community to help guide their decision-making processes. Much like the Big Ten, the ACC and SEC each formed a group of medical experts from their respective campuses, but the Big 12 has hired a group based out of Duke University Hospital called Infection Control Education for Major Sports, which also works with the NFL.
“We’re not really asking them to make return-to-campus decisions. We’re asking them to help us apply best practices to how do you sanitize locker rooms, how do you sanitize weight rooms and how do you start up a testing program and what kinds of things do you do with temperature monitoring?” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “It will be governor offices and public health officials that make decisions on when it’s time to come back. In the meantime, what we’re trying to do is have people advise us on what the best practices are to take care of things once we’re back.”
Some of that advice is coming from the professional levels. The Power 5 commissioners recently had a call with the NFL’s Goodell, and are hoping to glean some insight from the league as it takes the lead in navigating football through the pandemic.
“They’re ahead of us in terms of developing protocols as to how they can bring players back, and how they would test,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “They have to deal with different state regulations just like we may have to deal with that, but from a medical standpoint, I think we can certainly learn from them as they move into their training camps and playing games because their cycle is ahead of ours.”
Lacking a clear time frame — and acknowledging the reality that it will be different all over the country — conferences are preparing for various scenarios.
Despite several factors working against an on-time start for the season, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is optimistic it can happen based on discussions with the Pac-12’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee and university leadership.
“Our intention is not only that the season starts on time, that we play a full season and that includes nonconference games,” Scott says. “That includes bowls, the postseason. So college football has to work together on this if that’s all going to happen. We’re working on scenarios with our peer conferences, and they range from our intention at the moment, which is to start on time and play a full season, but we’ll look at the possibility of a delayed start or compressed schedule. We’ll look at everything, but we’re in the process of narrowing what the realistic options are and what we’ll all agree are options.”
Even with the optimism, Scott says he can’t rule out the one scenario everyone associated with the sport wants to avoid: no season at all.
“Certainly, it’s something that is contemplated as a possibility, but I think it’s highly unlikely from what I know today,” Scott says. “We know a lot more now than we did four weeks ago. I’m careful not to predict what could happen, but that’s a possibility.”
DANA WHITE STOOD in front of the Octagon at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas on April 9. The UFC president had just announced that the promotion’s event scheduled for April 18 had been canceled. But White, hands in his pockets, made a vow.
“We will be the first sport back,” White said in an interview with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto.
Exactly one month to the day, UFC 249 was held in an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. President Donald Trump, a longtime friend of White’s, praised the UFC for bringing sports back in a video that aired on the broadcast.
The UFC drew up a 20-page health-and-safety document — put together by a team led by promotion chief medical consultant Dr. Jeff Davidson — and sent it to the Florida State Boxing Commission and local authorities last month. The protocols included COVID-19 testing as soon as fighters, their corners and other personnel arrived at the host hotel and self-isolation until the results from the swab tests came back. White says more than 1,200 tests, including ones for antibodies, were done in total over the course of the week.
It was an exhaustive set of policies on paper, and White described the execution as “super successful.” But some things slipped through the cracks. Fighter Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his corners tested positive for COVID-19 the day before UFC 249. Souza was pulled from his fight, removed from the hotel and asked to self-isolate off premises.
Souza, however, had been in contact with others before the results came back. A video was posted on social media showing him and fellow fighter Fabricio Werdum next to each other. And Souza, wearing a mask and gloves, fist-bumped White at the weigh-ins earlier that morning.
In its plan, the UFC said interviews would not be conducted inside the Octagon. But from the very first fight, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan went back on that, interviewing athletes in the Octagon without a mask.
The UFC has said its COVID plan is fluid and reports from Jacksonville have been that procedures ran more smoothly as the eight days progressed. But what these protocols don’t currently include is a strict “bubble.” Fighters and other personnel were not tested before they arrived and not tested again after the event. The social distancing between arrival and the return of test results was spotty. Some coaches and corners who had fighters on more than one card were not tested again for COVID-19.
While Florida let the UFC run those three cards the way the promotion saw fit, that won’t necessarily be the case when other states reopen.
“Even with the best intentions and the best plans put together you can still have some degree of risk,” California State Athletic Commission executive officer Andy Foster said on a virtual stakeholder meeting May 11.
White is hoping for an event May 30 and another big card June 6 in Las Vegas, plus the July debut of Fight Island for international fighters to compete until they can get work visas to the United States.
But huge questions remain. Even the most aggressive league and commissioner in sports still has hoops to jump through and health concerns to navigate.
“I think what you see now is now you see all the other sports leagues talking about, ‘We’re going, we’re going, we’re going, we’re going,'” White says. “Somebody had to get out and be first.”