Review: Ranking Sports Leagues’ Coronavirus Protocols

National leagues adopted variety of ways to play through coronavirus outbreaks

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Photo by Eric Lysenko from shutterstock

The Scotiabank Arena in Toronto hosts the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The arena and two hotels were fenced off for player and staff use, not allowing anyone in or out.

Sports reporter Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Utah Jazz basketball star Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11.

Just four minutes later, the NBA announced it would suspend its 2019-2020 season, causing a chain reaction that would lead to the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the suspension of the NHL’s 2019-2020 season and the delay of the beginning of MLB’s 2020 season.

These cancelations, matched with the placement of stay-at-home orders nationwide, caused many to realize the impending threat the coronavirus was to the U.S. Soon after, talks of how sports could restart during the pandemic sped up. On July 23, MLB played its opening day without fans, followed by the NBA and NHL.

Despite the on-going pandemic, each of the major sports leagues has attempted to limit the virus’s spread while maintaining the same quality of athletics and entertainment value.

I will grade the major sports leagues based on the response to the coronavirus.

NBA: A+

The NBA 2019-2020 season was unpredictable, but good relationships between players and the NBA’s management became more beneficial than ever. Under an elaborate plan crafted by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and supported by National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts and President Chris Paul, the players were to spend the remainder of their seasons inside the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The season tipped off on July 31.

The bubble made it so players could not see their families unless they were either eliminated from the tournament or advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs. However, the players had accommodated hotels, food and barbers. The massive list of safety protocols worked, as the NBA proudly reported zero positive coronavirus cases throughout the months of the quarantine. Players who defied these protocols were either required to self-quarantine, in the case of Los Angeles Clippers point guard Lou Williams or asked to leave the bubble, in the case of Houston Rockets forward Daniel House.

In terms of quality of play, the NBA started right from where they had left off. The bubble seeding games allowed teams to both warm-up and grant the potential of fringe teams to make the playoffs, such as the case of the Portland Trailblazers, who defeated the Memphis Grizzlies to win the NBA’s first playoff play-in game since 1956. Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic’s buzzer-beater in game four of the Mavs’ playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, as well as the hard-fought Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, showed the world the NBA was as good as ever with its young stars and competitive teams battling it out.

NHL: A

The NHL bubble only worked because of the open-mindedness and quick thinking of the NHL’s management, workers and players. On Aug. 1, the puck dropped for the first time since March in the Canadian Cities of Edmonton, Alberta and Toronto, where players, league staff, medical officers and security were put into categories determining movement restrictions inside the fenced-off area containing two hotels and the arena.

Two speed bumps occurred. The first was the way the NHL’s playoff seeding impacted its draft. Eight teams from each division had to battle in a five-game series to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the losing team from each series would be entered into the NHL Draft. However, the NHL Draft Lottery occurred in June before the play-in series occurred, meaning a placeholder team had to be entered. The placeholder team won.

The other speed bump was the lack of gym equipment and training areas the majority of players had.

“For a very significant chunk of time, there was a very significant number of guys in the league that had access to no ice, and some of them had no access to anything that would bear resemblance to real, structured off-ice strength and conditioning,” private trainer Matt Nichols told Sports Illustrated.

However, once a timeline was put into place and teams were allowed to work out together, all doubt was erased.

Similar to the NBA, the NHL’s bubble succeeded in not allowing any coronavirus infections. The quality of play remained the same as it was pre-bubble, and the lack of seeing family, home-ice advantage and constant coronavirus screenings may have increased the difficulty of winning the Stanley Cup.

“These guys have been away from home for more than two months. This has been the ultimate team effort,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said before presenting the cup to the champion Tampa Bay Lightning. “This Stanley Cup run will go down in record books as perhaps the hardest run of all time.”

NFL: B

The NFL was unscathed regarding the start time of its season, kicking off as planned on Sep. 10.

To keep players healthy and well prepared for the physically demanding season, the four weeks of preseason games were canceled.

However, the removal of these games may have impacted the injury bug that has plagued players all around the league, as stars such as New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa suffered season-ending injuries in week two. Other elite players, such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckam Jr., also went down with season-ending injuries.

The contact sport couldn’t escape from coronavirus outbreaks. In week four, the Tennessee Titans were the first team to be hit hard with the virus, causing the postponement of two games. As of Dec. 5, out of about 750,000 administered tests, 173 players and 297 staff and personnel tested positive.

Inconsistencies regarding how the NFL reschedules its games for certain teams have also risen. The highly anticipated Baltimore Ravens v. Pittsburgh Steelers Primetime Thanksgiving game was canceled due to multiple cases in the Raven’s organization, including star Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. However, the Denver Broncos were forced to play their game against the New Orleans Saints while all four of their eligible quarterbacks contracted the virus.

These inconsistencies haven’t affected the quality of the gameplay as much as it has affected other sports. The addition of a playoff spot was a great choice, as it allows fringe teams to get into the playoffs during this chaotic season. Teams like the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals, previously long-shots, had a path to the postseason while teams around them underperform or get hit with coronavirus cases and injuries.

NCAA Basketball: B

March Madness was one of the premier sports events that were canceled during the wave of cancelations in mid-March due to the coronavirus. However, on Nov. 25, college basketball tipped off, only about two weeks after its originally scheduled date of Nov. 10.

While games have been canceled or rescheduled, compared to other sports leagues, college basketball has been adept at limiting outbreaks throughout the country. Teams will have a maximum 27 game season with limited conference play. However, it’s very early in the season and in-conference games are just getting started, so outbreaks could be possible in the future.

The NCAA has adopted a similar approach to the NBA, playing with no fans and limited contact. Tournaments at the beginning of the season were set very similar to the NBA bubble, with more space around the court and stands removed. Besides the lack of energy resulting from home court crowds being absent, similar to the NBA, rivalry matchups, rising stars and explosive teams are all present this season.

MLB: C+

The MLB’s return to play was anything but smooth. After opening day was pushed back, on March 26, an Associated Press report stated MLB and the MLB players union reached a deal on topics such as salary, service time and the draft. However, as both salaries and season length became discussed in-depth, MLB league management and the players union began to butt heads.

MLB offered players 80% of their prorated salaries and a 72 game schedule on June 12, which the players union declined. After telling ESPN a 2020 baseball season would be a certainty, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN five days later on June 15 that there was doubt the season would be played at all. Finally, on June 23, an agreement was reached for e a 60 game season with expanded playoffs.

However, unlike the NBA and NHL, there would not be a bubble until the playoffs. The teams would play to no crowds but at their home stadiums. The Toronto Blue Jays played in Buffalo, New York due to Canadian restrictions on travel in and out of the U.S. opening up the league to potential outbreaks.

The season began on July 23 and was immediately called into question as outbreaks occurred in both the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals organizations, leading to a postponement of more than 40 games throughout the MLB. The league eventually got itself together, and the playoff bubbles set up in Arlington, Texas and San Diego limited positive results. The quality of play was not questioned and brought memorable series and games. However, the extended playoffs allowed teams with losing records, such as the Houston Astros, to get a shot at the Commissioner’s Trophy.

The most baffling part of an already wacky season was the handling of the Justin Turner situation during game six of the World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers. During the sixth inning, it was reported that the Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, a critical part of the team, had contracted the coronavirus. Turner traveled to an isolation room where he remained for the rest of the game, but claims after the Dodgers won the game and the series, he was allowed to join the team in celebration. Turner received no punishment. Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly also claims the MLB bubble was less a bubble and more a “secure zone,” citing that umpires and hotel staff were allowed to go outside the bubble, which leads to questions on how Turner contracted the virus.

NCAA Football: C

College football was hit the hardest by the pandemic, as inconsistencies, contradictions and outbreaks derailed the majority of the team’s seasons. On Aug. 11, the Big Ten became the first Power Five conference to announce it would be canceling all fall sports, and the Pacific 12 would soon follow. After the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference had already announced it would only have play in-conference games, on Aug. 12, the Big 12 would make their decision as the last Power Five Conference to play.

The Big Ten released a statement on Aug. 19 that said its council of presidents and chancellors “was overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited.” Less than a month later, it was revisited, and on Oct. 24 the Big Ten kicked off. The PAC-12 would kick off on Nov. 6, almost a month and a half after the Big 12 started their season.

The NCAA did not handled the coronavirus well. By Oct. 16, over 120 games had been canceled, as virtually every conference had their schedule and teams affected by outbreaks. It didn’t help that every stadium has different policies and quotas on allowing fans, decided by each school’s respective states and counties.

Following an upsetting loss, University of Florida coach Dan Mullen urged the Florida government to allow fans to fill the stands of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in a game against Louisiana State University. Four days later, his program was forced to shut down after 19 positive tests for the coronavirus.

The constant canceling of games due to outbreaks drastically impacted the already tight race for a College Football Playoff spot. Only four out of the 127 eligible teams could gain a spot, and programs close to gaining a spot were being blindsided by outbreaks. However, these strange scenarios have indeed helped teams like Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati, as open schedules have allowed both teams to prove themselves against other playoff hopefuls.