Professional sports learn to live with COVID. We are next.

Pushing forward.
Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images

You can argue that of all US institutions, professional sports worried the least about the pandemic but handled it better. From the start, it was obvious that the sport was going to come back as soon as possible, legally. Remember when Georgia Governor Brian Kemp opened tattoo parlors and bowling alleys in April 2020? This highly controversial act led directly to the NBA bubble: The Atlanta Hawks asked the NBA if they could use their team’s facilities for training (rather than having players train at Equinox gyms. randomly in town), which sparked a series of events that, three months later, the NBA recover over $ 1.5 billion in revenue of a summer experience. Was it prudent or wise to put off the sport so quickly? Probably not. But the leagues were never going to wait for permission. And they ended up ahead of everything, finishing almost all of their seasons (and selling almost all of their TV inventory) ahead of vaccines – then gaining the kind of employee buy-in to COVID snapshots that remain the envy of every other industry. (Hospitals would kill for their staff to have the WNBA immunization rate.) I wouldn’t say sports LED during the pandemic. But they did what they had to do.

That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as the Omicron variant once again upsets our pandemic calculus, sports are still at the forefront of the company’s response. As the long lines of trials in highly vaccinated New York City illustrate, breakthrough cases are no longer a particularly unusual phenomenon. (Not that they were even rare before.) This is a problem for sports leagues, which generally expected to simply get vaccinated out of the pandemic, but are suddenly faced with a dramatic increase in positive cases. – resulting in the first cancellations and postponements of games that we have seen since last winter. Unlike most workplaces, the leagues are constantly administering COVID tests, so they detect every groundbreaking case in a way few other companies could. But as we learn, a “positive case” in December 2021 means something very different from what it was in July 2020. Sport is perhaps the first public institution to not only recognize it, but do something about it. thing about it.

After a tumultuous week of frantically rescheduled games, the NFL, NBA and NHL have all announced significant changes to their testing protocols. These new rules – and especially those of the NFL – are likely a preview of how most of society will come to think about the future of the pandemic. Last season, the NFL tested all of its players all the time, regardless of their vaccination status. From now on, it will only test fully vaccinated players if they are showing symptoms. (NBA protocols added that those who have “recently recovered” from the virus also do not have to be tested, but in the NFL, unvaccinated players like Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson will be swabbed as regularly as they are. they always have been.) The league has responded to an increase in cases not by dramatically expanding its testing schedule, which it could easily have, but by focusing and clarifying it. This is how the leagues will handle COVID-19 now. Tests mean cases, and cases mean games carried over. So there will be fewer tests.

The NHL made headlines Monday night by announcing that its schedule was “on hiatus,” but it should be noted that the NHL was already taking vacation time, even before Omicron. The number of matches postponed by the “break? Three. The league will be back on December 27. Think about the “break” less a “shutdown” and more at your child’s school who will be going on vacation two days earlier than expected. Inconvenient, but hardly overwhelming. (At this point, it’s worth pointing out that the NHL has one unvaccinated player. No, literally, just one: Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi, whose unvaccinated status constantly makes him laugh at the ice.)

There is certainly a cynical element in this league strategy. In a way, it’s reminiscent of those horrific first days of the pandemic when the former president would say things like, “If we weren’t doing any testing, we’d have very few cases.” The difference by then, of course, is that hundreds of millions of people are vaccinated and therefore protected against the most serious consequences of the coronavirus. And sports leagues are made up of healthy, fit, fully vaccinated (and mostly boosted) athletes playing against other healthy, fit, fully vaccinated (and mostly boosted) athletes. This is not quite eliminate the risk factor linked to the organization of a sporting event. But he certainly does the risk approach zero, right? That’s the math of the NFL and the NBA: Their playground is a very different place than, say, an assisted living facility, so different rules should apply. They adjusted the risk calculations.

The logical conclusion of the new league policy is that a fully vaccinated athlete who has an asymptomatic case of COVID will play in a game. Surely it has already happened. It probably happened yesterday. But it’s one thing to know it, and another thing for the league to accept. This may be the only way to go, however. If the leagues test every player every day, they are going to detect so many positive cases that it will be impossible to play – the rest of the season would look like the last chaotic week. The leagues now admit what most of us realize but are wary of saying it out loud: COVID is just a part of our lives now, and if we don’t learn to live with it, we will never be able to do it. ‘no matter what.

It may seem reasonable to you or it may seem reckless; the pandemic has confirmed, at the very least, that everyone has their own individual risk paradigm. But the sports leagues have made it as clear as possible that in the Omicron era, their future depends on peace with the virus. This future looks more and more like ours.