Pro sports in a pandemic: Who was safe, who wasn’t?


The Catalyst / Pablo Fernández via Flickr

Photo of basketball arena.

As COVID-19 cases began to slowly decline during the summer, three major professional sports organizations, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball, decided to bring back their teams for the playoffs. Who stayed safe, and who was reckless?

The National Hockey League brought back their playoff-contending teams based on statistics from where the season was cut short. 24 teams were selected, and these contending teams were placed in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada.

Players quarantined and were tested every week before playing, with no positive test results from any team members. Players’ families were not allowed to stay with them in the bubble, but players could opt-out at any time if they wanted to leave the bubble and return home.

There were also no spectators allowed in the stadiums to adhere to social distancing restrictions, making the games a little different without the roar of the cheering crowds. Inside the bubble, masks and social distancing restrictions were enforced. At the end of the season, no players or staff members had tested positive inside of the bubbles, demonstrating that the NHL had one of the safest handlings of COVID-19.

The National Basketball Association brought back playoff-contending teams and selected 22 teams to quarantine and compete in the playoffs. The teams stayed in a bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Players were tested before arriving at the bubble, upon arrival, and every other day. After the first round of playoffs, family and guests were allowed to visit the bubble, but spectators and those with no personal connections to players were not allowed inside. Players could also opt-out of the bubble if desired.

Masks and social distancing were enforced, and players would be sent home if restrictions were violated. Danuel House, a player for the Houston Rockets, was removed from the bubble for not following the guidelines. The NBA demonstrated another safe return during COVID-19, as no players or staff members had tested positive inside of the bubble throughout the course of the playoffs.

Major League Baseball was an example of poor handling of COVID-19 during baseball’s return to sports. The organization brought back 16 teams to compete in the playoffs with no organized bubble system in place while they were still traveling across the country for games. Players were tested every other day, but this did not prevent outbreaks within teams from occurring.

A few weeks into the season, 13 members of the Saint Louis Cardinals and 20 members of the Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19. The Marlins were even aware of positive tests within the team on July 26th, but proceeded to play their game that day anyway.

After these serious outbreaks, the MLB tightened restrictions with some teams enforcing masks and the MLB enforcing league-wide social distancing restrictions. The official postseason playoffs were more restricted, with four out of the eight remaining teams sent to a bubble in southern California and the other four sent to Texas. These bubbles were more organized than the first round of playoffs, but by the end of the season, 146 total employees had been exposed to COVID-19, more than any other professional sports organization.

By observing how these three major organizations handled COVID-19 and seeing their results, there is skepticism surrounding the National Football League’s handling of the pandemic so far. Just within the first few weeks of November, 56 positive tests have been confirmed among team members and staff. With no bubbles set in place, there are possibilities for similar outbreaks in the NFL as the MLB.