Sports Outside the Bubble: Can MLB and the NFL Survive?

The first week of baseball has been fun, but how long will it last?
The first week of baseball has been fun, but how long will it last? Photo by Jack Gorman
It was wonderful. Quiet, but wonderful. The Major League Baseball season got underway last week, not in front of fans and with some players wearing masks, but it started none the less. And it was glorious.

Less than a week later, the entire league is on the verge of shutting down and there are good reasons to think they should.

If you aren't caught up, the Miami Marlins have had 11 players and several coaches test positive for COVID-19 as of Monday. Four of those were known over the weekend, but not disclosed despite games that had been played previously and their game Sunday night in Philadelphia to wrap up a series with the Phillies. Now, everyone is holding their breath to see how far the spread goes.

This comes on the heels of the Atlanta Braves losing both starting catchers to the virus prior to opening day. Want to make a guess who they played just before that?

Yup, the Marlins and Braves played exhibition games just prior to opening day. Catchers would seem more likely to spread or catch the airborne virus given their proximity to the players and umpires. Also, Miami is a hotspot in the swelling wave of the virus. But, who knows how it happened, when or why. All we know is it did and the implications go far beyond Miami.

The Phillies and Yankees canceled their game scheduled for Monday night. Never mind needing to hose down the visiting locker room (even though recent studies have found contact transmission chances are low), but who from the Phillies might have it? And tests don't typically get returned until the next day, so if you test someone today and play a game only to find out tomorrow the players had it, you just created greater spread.

Perhaps now you are beginning to see why sports outside the bubbles we see from soccer and basketball are risky at best, untenable at worst.

Setting aside for a moment the danger to players and team staff, what about all the hotel staff workers, janitors, porters, drivers and anyone else in proximity to the effected teams? MLB doesn't pay them. They are on their own. If the spread expands outward, the travel from city to city could be its own moving hotspot. How long before cities start telling teams to stay away, fearing outbreaks? Maybe Toronto was right to tell the Blue Jays they were not welcome to play home games there this season.

Remember, we are only five days into the abbreviated MLB season.

And this is baseball, a non-contact sport. There are reasonable precautions, you would think, that players could take. But, football? This should, if nothing else, be an extreme cautionary tale for the NFL and NCAA when it comes to their plans to play ball. How can they control their players, staff and coaches? What are the impacts to their communities? How can they travel? What do they do if there is an outbreak?

Baseball thought they had it figured out and now they are on the brink of disaster. They just go through announcing expanded playoffs. They'll be lucky if they can get through three weeks of play.

On the other hand, you have soccer and basketball. Both MLS and NWSL have played in contained locations, MLS in Orlando like the NBA and NWSL in Utah. The women's league just completed a successful tournament with no infections — and a huge championship trophy for the Houston Dash! Over on the men's side, there hasn't been a positive case reported for two weeks.

Basketball has had no cases reported since players entered the bubble in Orlando. And anyone who leaves has to be sequestered before rejoining the general league population. Their tolerance is low and their protocols are strict, unlike MLB players who can go home, interact with family and generally live a normal life.

Sure, players are trying to be cautious, but it is impossible to know that every person in their circle of family and friends is disease free and will remain that way for the full season and playoffs. And if one player gets it, they all have the potential of getting it.

With the very young season already on the brink of an abrupt ending, it is worth wondering out loud if this experiment was poorly conceived to begin with, and if baseball was fooling itself to think they could play outside a bubble and live to tell about it.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke