The Major League Baseball season is falling apart right after it started. The same fate will befall the National Football League in September if it doesn’t drastically reimagine its protocol for a return to play.
Fourteen members of the Miami Marlins franchise tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days, ESPN reported this morning. The team’s home opener tonight against the Baltimore Orioles has been canceled. MLB executives are reportedly convening an emergency meeting today about the outbreak, which occurred just four days into the planned 60-game season.
Even if the league attempts to proceed without the Marlins, more outbreaks on other teams are a near certainty. Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, one of the league’s young stars, tested positive for coronavirus hours before the team’s opening game on July 23, and his status for the season remains in limbo. A number of prominent players across the league have tested positive as well.
Unlike the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, which are set to resume their seasons this week, the MLB’s pandemic-shortened season is not taking place inside a “bubble” designed to limit the contacts between players and staff and the outside world. While NBA and NHL players isolate in one or two locations, MLB players are flying across the country, reusing locker rooms, and interacting with people outside the league as if the US wasn’t still in the throes of a pandemic.
As of today, the NFL plans to conduct its 2020 season the same way—without a bubble. The NFL is also allowing fans at games (though some teams have announced they’ll reduce capacity or prohibit fans entirely). This is a recipe for disaster.
NFL organizations are much bigger and more complex than teams of any other American sport. Rosters are far larger (offseason rosters will be 80 players, before being cut down to 53 once games begin), teams employ more staff, and injuries are more prevalent. The sport itself—predicated on humans grabbing and tackling each other in close quarters—is not exactly conducive to stopping the spread of a highly contagious disease.
Last month, the league’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said a bubble was not “practical or appropriate.” The league has not outlined many specific policies to limit the spread of Covid-19 during the season beyond its testing guidelines.
US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci has said repeatedly the NFL should implement a bubble if it wants to have a season. “Unless players are essentially in a bubble—insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day—it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci told CNN in June.
NFL teams are set to begin training camps this week to prepare for the regular season in early September. Each team has its own health and safety protocols. The Los Angeles Rams, for instance, will limit parking spaces and reduce the number of players allowed in the hot tubs at the same time.
So far, the NBA and NHL bubbles have held up relatively well. Out of 348 NBA tests last week, zero were positive for Covid-19. Just two of the NHL’s 800 players tested thus far have been positive. European soccer leagues have managed to safely resume play even without a bubble, because, unlike the US, the countries in which those take place have the virus under control.
The MLB season is a uniquely American blunder. And the NFL season, should the league learn nothing from baseball’s error, is doomed to be a catastrophe.