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Sports

Keith Strudler: Risk Management Of Pro Sports

If you’ve ever wanted to make an NBA roster, now it probably your best shot. Especially if you don’t mind playing for the Brooklyn Nets, who seem to have an inordinate amount of open roster spots. Of course, since every team is going to be playing in Disney World, I suppose city of origin is fairly irrelevant at this point. But beyond the ongoing injury issues for Brooklyn, including stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – and now surgery for bench forward Nicholas Claxton, the Nets have already lost two players to Coronavirus and a third who’s opting out for fear of catching the virus. And that’s with still a couple of weeks before heading to Florida, plenty of time for the rest of the roster to test positive or decide to sit this season out.

The Nets aren’t alone, even if they are on the cutting edge. Apparently three members of the New Orleans Pelicans tested positive, while Denver had to shut down their facility because of two positive tests. All in all, not a great start to building the bubble. It would be like Noah bringing a thunderstorm inside the ark. And this isn’t simply a problem for basketball, but other pro sports as well. In Major League Baseball, dozens of players and staff have tested positive, while a growing list of players have said they won’t play this newly announced 60 game season, a decision that could cost them millions of prorated dollars. And it seems MLB doesn’t have a great system of ensuring the dugout doesn’t become one giant hotspot. We’re too far from football season to know how many have or will test positive. But if college football summer training is any indicator, it’s going to be a lot. We could go on and on about golf, hockey, soccer, and pretty much anything outside of solitaire. But rest assured, if there’s an organization that’s planning to hold communal sports this summer and fall, there will be people involved that have or will test positive for Covid 19.

If we accept that reality, which I have, it both simplifies and complicates the narrative. In other words, once we realize there’s no such thing as a Corona-free sports bubble, we can all speak the same language and make decisions based on science, not magic. The question is no longer, can we build a fail-proof bubble, but rather, what’s an acceptable amount of Covid in your sport. This is as much a question of risk management as viral load.

Obviously, some players are deciding that their team or their sport can’t be safe enough to be worth it. We’ve seen this from men and women across pro sports, including several WNBA athletes who will likely sit the season out. If enough go that route, I’d guess certain sports would have to shut down. And I can also imagine those decisions might happen more often with a lot of positive team tests or even if players grow especially weary playing under conditions that feel oppressive. As fun as Disney is, it’s a lot less fun when you’re locked in.

There’s a long standing saying that sports is just a microcosm of the real world outside it, which is both true and exaggerated, depending on the moment. Obviously, most of us aren’t trying to decide whether to return to a multi-million dollar salary, and we aren’t entering a workplace where physical distancing is only practiced by Carmelo Anthony on defense. But in some cases, professional sports and athletes are asking the same questions we’re asking ourselves as a society. It’s not whether or not our workplaces and camps and schools are free of Coronavirus – because they aren’t and won’t be despite our best efforts. It’s whether a hopefully reduced risk of the virus is worth regaining some sense of normalcy – whether that be kids socializing, 20 year olds going to college, people dating, heading to an office, and yes, playing professional sports.

For the NBA, MLB, NFL, and everything in-between, the question isn’t how to stay fully Covid free. It’s how much Covid is too much. That may sound grotesque, but it’s at least honest. And it’s the same question we all ask ourselves when we decide whether to let our kids go to summer camp with all of their precautions and thermometers and spacing and pods so they can have some joy. And to be clear, I don’t have the right answer, other than to say, it’s complicated.

That said, a bunch of athletes are going to take to the courts soon in Orlando to play some NBA basketball. And at the rate it’s going, you could probably have a shot to join them.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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