The NFL and NBA Must Chart a New Path Through Omicron Panic

The five Los Angeles Rams players who tested positive for COVID-19 were found hours before their scheduled Monday night game against the NFL’s top-ranked team. They include Jalen Ramsey, star cornerback, and Tyler Higbee (starting tight end). All five of them would be prohibited from playing in the critical game due to the NFL’s pandemic rules.

Sean McVay, Rams’ head coach, stated that “My first reaction was to say, ‘You got shitting me.’ later that nightHe was interviewed shortly after the team won a convincing 30-23 victory over Arizona Cardinals, despite having to find backups for key positions.

This was a stark example of how professional teams have dealt with the situation facing them since the beginning of the pandemic. All players and coaches have been vaccinated. Players who are positive for the vaccine must be kept away from other players or teams until they become negative. It may mean taking the court, court, and rink off-limits to a key player without much notice.

The Rams’ situation had become a norm by Thursday. The NFL has seen dozens of positive tests this week—by far the largest total since the start of the pandemic. Washington Football Team currently has 15 injured players. At least 13 players are out for the Cleveland Browns. Now, the Rams have at least 13 players. Similar increases in the number of cases are also occurring in other leagues. After more than 20 positive player and staff tests, the National Hockey League (NHL), has postponed several Calgary Flames game. Multiple teams are in a similar situation with the National Basketball Association.

Many Americans remember the March 11th 2020 night as the day COVID became real. After Rudy Gobert’s positive blood test, the NBA abruptly cancelled one game. Then, it suspended its entire season. Sports are again being used to represent a culture-wide reckoning. This is despite the predictable seasonal rise in COVIDs. How Americans perceive the next stage in this pandemic depends on what major professional leagues decide in the coming days.

Some of their success is the victim of its own success. Because of their lucrative TV contracts, all three of them were keen to return to the game they loved during the initial year of COVID. This meant that even though it was a little uncomfortable to be in front of empty stands for some time. To achieve that, they adopted testing and isolation protocols meant to protect players and coaches as best as possible—though lockdowns, as we’ve all learned, do not come without painful tradeoffs. The leagues, along with their player’s unions, pushed for vaccine widespread adoption when they became widely available. According to the NHL, there are four league-wide unvaccinated NHL players. A leaguewide vaccination rate for the NFL is 94.6 percent. This is significantly higher than in any other U.S. state.

Even though vaccination rates are among the highest in America, major sports leagues still require routine testing. In fact, both the NBA and NFL recently imposed heightened testing protocols—more tests, more frequently. It is not surprising that more positive results have been obtained. Many of the NFL’s players on COVID lists this Week are reportedly asymptomatic.

Pandemics can be controlled by increasing the number of tests. However, it can also lead to the illusion that the present surge in cases might be worse. Everyone must reexamine their approaches to dealing with the increasing endemic diseases if the Omicron variant proves to be more transmissible and less violent than the previous COVID iterations.

The American professional leagues of sports have the opportunity to take a leadership role in this matter, just as they did in March 2020. The leagues might recognize that healthy, vaccinated athletes do not face serious health risks from positive COVID tests and adjust their protocols accordingly.

Ethan Strauss, NBA Beat reporter and podcaster writes that the NBA has a chance to signal its end or even make a stop to this precautionary period. If commissioner Adam Silver comes forward to announce that his league has ended testing protocols and is treating the admittedly awful disease much like we treat other diseases, it could be a cultural shift.

Other illnesses are common among athletes. Michael Jordan delivered one of his legendary performances at the 1997 NBA Finals while suffering from flu symptoms.

COVID is still a major problem. Players will need to be vigilant for any outbreaks in their locker rooms. There will still need to be league-wide protocols to ensure competitive fairness, and teams will have to find ways to comply with local, state, and national public health guidelines—something that becomes especially tricky when it comes to traveling to and from games in different states (and, in some cases, to and from other countries).

“The basic plan,” Strauss suggests, would be to test players and team officials only if they’re showing symptoms—and then sit players who test positive. The message could simply be: “We can’t function like it’s 2022; the disease has become endemic and there are many vaccines available. We must now move to 2022.”

It’s not pretty. A high number of positive results could lead to cascading game cancellations, as the NFL Flames already have to deal with. The NFL stated that it wouldn’t postpone COVID-related games before the season began. Or, teams will have to forfeit the competition regardless of the extent of the pandemic. This is admirable determination, however, if the pandemic causes widespread havoc in the playoffs, it could lead to third-stringers fighting for the championship. In that case, the NFL might want to reconsider.

Already, some rethinking is taking place of the existing protocols. The NFL announced this week that it would mandate booster shots for team employees and coaches by December 27—the league can’t mandate shots for players without consent from the players’ union. More shots in arms can only be helpful, but boosting an already widely vaccinated population also makes the tension with the league’s isolate-if-you-have-a-positive-test policy more obvious.

The question that sports leagues—and, quite frankly, all of the rest of us—have to grapple with now is: How should vaccinated people react to a positive test? Most of us are long past the lock-yourself-in-the-basement phase. Vulnerable populations—the immunocompromised, elderly, and those who cannot get vaccinated—continue to need protecting, but elite athletes do not fall into that category. Individuals who do not wish to be vaccinated need not receive special accommodations.

Let’s not repeat March 2020. Two years after the outbreak, it is becoming more obvious that COVID-19 cannot be cured completely. It is now that COVID-19 as an endemic illness can be dealt with. It’s a step the major professional sports leagues will have to take sooner or later—and the sooner, the better.