The new pandemic has the world in lockdown and people are starting to get antsy. When will we return to normal? See our families? Gather? Watch sports?
Top athletes, honoring their contracts, have stayed in shape with virtual workouts, connected with fans through social media, and even played their poker games online. But will they be able to play this year? Let’s take a look at the obstacles facing team sports and what one of the world’s most elite soccer teams has done to restart their season.
No More Fans
The intensity ripples through the crowd as your team takes the last shot— and you are there for it… along with hundreds of others. Being a sports fan is great! Whether you watch live or at a bar, you surround yourself with other fans who, momentarily, feel like family. You cheer, hug, laugh, cry, and split the nachos. You are part of something bigger than yourself, and it is exhilarating. But is it a thing of the past?
Well, it all depends on who you ask. While we won’t be able to enjoy games with fellow strangers for quite some time, there are a lot of people right now trying to figure out how to resume their sports in any way they can. Most probably without fans in attendance and with a lot of precautions in place. But some experts are more cautious than others. Some are not comfortable asking athletes and staff to be exempt from health guidelines like other front line, essential workers. “For what?” they say, “for our entertainment?”
What if it Were Up to the Athletes?
A lot of fans, players, and team owners (who are admittedly losing a lot of money right now) are itching to see their sports teams in action. Some players are big advocates on opening up and playing again. NBA superstar Lebron James was quoted as saying he is not giving up on resuming the season. “Not only myself and my teammates, the Lakers organization, we want to play. There’s a lot of players that I know personally that want to play.” And then he added, “Obviously, we don’t ever want to jeopardize the health of any of our players or any of the players’ families and so on and so on. This is a pandemic that we have no idea [about]. We can’t control it.” But even with their season at a stand-still, two Lakers players have tested positive for COVID-19 (out of 14 NBA players so far) and the pandemic has touched the league in other ways too. Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl Anthony Towns revealed on Wednesday that his mother is in a medically induced coma caused by the coronavirus.
The Obstacles of a New Normal
Even if all athletes, coaches, and staff agree to play, there would still be an uncountable number of logistics to figure out. What will the new normal under “safe” social distancing guidelines look like? Experts agree that there should be testing (and players would have to be tested 4 to 7 times per week to be safe), as well as empty stadiums, and social distancing guidelines. Major League Baseball has approached the idea to confine all players of the league to the state of Arizona, and other leagues have thought of locking down the whole team together for the duration of their season. Could that be considered for other sports like hockey or rugby? But how will they be fed? Where would they live? What will happen if they get sick?
Bundesliga: The Coronavirus Trailblazers
In the midst of all this uncertainty the Bundesliga, Germany’s professional association soccer league, restarted this past Saturday, May 16th. And, in doing so, gave us all a glimpse of what professional sports might look in 2020 and 2021 as the world cautiously reopens.
Here are the seven main precautions the Bundesliga is taking to play safe and remain sane this season:
• Testing: According to ESPN, players and staff were tested for coronavirus prior to reopening the season. Over 1700 tests were conducted on all 36 clubs, and ten cases of COVID-19 were detected and reported to health authorities. Infected people were isolated. In fact, second-division club Erzgebirge Aue put their entire team in home isolation after a staff member tested positive. However, there is no clear plan of what the league will do if/when a player or staff members tests positive now that the season has begun. What they have made clear is that testing is critical. The Bundesliga is testing staff members and players regularly as an important precaution against the pandemic.
• Temperature checks: There are 11 players in a soccer field at any given time. But to play and televise a Bundesliga game you need over 200 essential people in the stadium. There’s the media, security personnel, medical support, and VAR operators, to name a few. And they all have been other places, taken their own transportation to the stadiums, and are not regularly tested by the league. So, as another safety precaution, the Bundesliga requires temperature checks for everyone entering the stadium.
• More buses: Social distancing is another critical precaution the Bundesliga is taking to resume their season. Players are required to drive to home games. And for road games, the league has had to acquire more buses to transport the players since they now should sit by themselves and at a distance from their teammates. The buses are disinfected before and after each use.
• Players and staff quarantined in team hotels: The Bundesliga is also keeping track of their players when they are off the clock. Players may live either in team hotels or at home, but they are barred from having sex if they or their partner are suspected of having symptoms of COVID-19.
• Masks everywhere: Medics, police officers, and other essential workers wear their masks to work, but asking a soccer player to score a goal while wearing a mask is a whole different story. So, the Bundesliga came up with this rule: everyone inside the stadium must wear a mask unless they are actively playing. This means that players and substitutes can take off their masks to warm up but they must wear masks on the benches until they are called into play. When players are replaced, they are handed a mask before reaching the bench. Head coaches are the only ones on the sidelines allowed to go without a mask so they can shout out instructions to their players.
• Empty stadiums: No fans. That was the deal from the start and will probably be the last restriction to go. To quote Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, chair of the public health committee for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, “you just can’t bring together a bunch of people who don’t usually mix, and pack them really close together for an extended period of time.”
• Disinfected balls: It is called “foot” ball, but there is quite a lot of ball throwing in soccer and so, balls must be disinfected. The parameters state that balls should be disinfected before the game, during halftime, and after the game. Ball boys must disinfect the balls and leave them in designated posts instead of handing them directly to the players.
• Social distancing: There are so many social distancing precautions. It seems that Bundesliga thought of everything! Elbow bumps are recommended instead of high-fives, toe touches instead of handshakes, and no piling on top of each other no matter how amazing the goal scored. On the benches, players must sit two seats apart from each other, and players in the starting lineup are kept apart from subs, including for pregame meals and warm-ups. Even the post-game interview is socially distanced. Players are interviewed with disinfected microphones on a six-foot stick and post-game conferences are done by video conferencing.
Whew! That is a lot of precautions! Is it all worth it? And, most importantly, is it working?
The Good, The Bad, The Interesting
The good news is that the games are happening and the fans are watching from home. As a matter of fact, they are watching more than ever. The resumption of Bundesliga on Saturday was viewed by over six million fans in Germany, which is not only a new record, it is more than double the usual audience for a typical round of Saturday matches!
That been said, everyone missed the fans at the stadium, and not being able to touch each other felt odd. The BBC reports former Bayern Munich and England midfielder Owen Hargreaves saying, “I am missing the fans already. It was so strange, it is going to take some getting used to. Football without the fans is tough to watch.” And Fortuna Dusseldorf manager Uwe Rosler stated, “The day was a bit odd. I am an emotional man, I like to take a player in my arms, which I obviously couldn’t do today.”
Soccer is an emotional game. And the humanity of it all is showing already. As good passes were celebrated with elbow bumps, players have not been able to contain themselves when it came to grand goals. There was one instance in particular when Hertha Berlin players celebrated their 3-0 win at Hoffenheim with a multi-player embrace. They will not be fined, however, since the German league asking players not to embrace is a guideline and not a rule.
What to Expect from the Rest of Sports
How can you take touching out of team sports? Are some sports more susceptible than others? We will have to wait and see what other leagues do and how they follow the imposed guidelines. For the rest of the soccer world, we know that South Korea’s K league has also resumed playing and smaller teams like Nicaragua and Belarus never stopped. In Africa, a lot of soccer has been suspended and the Africa Cup of Nations might be next. But some countries like Burundi have yet to see a case of COVID-19 and remain open and celebrating matches with fans and everything. Still, Bundesliga was the first elite soccer in over two months. And the Premiere League of England is looking to be the next one. Plans are underway to restart the season in June, with Manchester United players due to report for training at Carrington on Wednesday.
As for the rest of sports, here is a look at where things stand with many of the top sports in the world. (Data source: The New York Times as of Monday, May 18).
|UNCHANGED||STARTING DATE/DATE SUSPENDED||NEW DATE|
|NASCAR||X||March 8||May 17, 2020|
|NHL draft||X||June 26|
|French Open||X||May 24||Sept 20, 2020|
|US Open||X||Aug 24|
|WTA/ATP Tours||X||March 12|
|LPGA Tours||X||March 12|
|PGA Tours||X||March 13||June 11, 2020|
|The Masters||X||April 9||Nov 12, 2020|
|PGA Championship||X||May 14||Aug 6, 2020|
|US Open||X||June 18||Sept 14, 2020|
|British Open||X||July 16|
|Summer Olympics||X||July 24||July 23, 2021|
|Paralympics||X||August 25||Aug 24, 2021|
|UFC||X||March 21||May 9, 2020|
As the sports world reopens, we are left with nostalgia for the way things were just a few months ago. How the world has changed! But as fans, we will always be cheering and showing up for our teams, even if we have to watch televised matches, follow our favorite players on Instagram, and show our pride by wearing our favorite teams’ face masks. When will they start selling those by the way? The fans are watching and we need our fan gear to protect us and our teams to lead us through these tough times.
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