Dec 22, 2021 - Sports

Sports leagues learn to live with COVID

U.S. daily COVID-19 cases
Data: CDC; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

Throughout the pandemic, sports have often been at the forefront of America's response. That remains true as 2022 approaches — though health experts are split on how leagues are handling Omicron's spread.

Driving the news: The NFL responded to a recent surge in cases by limiting, rather than expanding, testing protocols. Moving forward, fully vaccinated players will only be tested if they show symptoms.

  • The cynical view: Tests mean cases, cases mean postponements, and postponements are bad for the bottom line. So, the league opted for less testing.
  • Another way to look at it: The NFL's approach hints at how most of society will come to view the pandemic and the risks facing vaccinated people, particularly if the early data is right and Omicron causes less severe disease.

What they're saying: While the NBA has different rules than the NFL, it has sent a similar message with its handling of the Omicron wave, which has seen 100 players enter protocols this month.

  • "This virus will not be eradicated, and we're going to have to learn to live with it," NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN on Tuesday, adding that there are "no plans" to pause the season.
  • In fact, with Omicron constituting 90% of cases, Silver said the league is considering shortening the number of days a player can be out in protocols before returning to the court.
  • Silver said he hopes the NBA — which is 97% vaccinated and 65% boosted — can show the rest of the world a way forward "as this virus becomes part of our lives."

The other side: The NFL may be fine knowing that vaccinated players with asymptomatic cases are walking the halls of team facilities and playing in games. But its protocols ignore the reality that those players go out into the world, where people are more at risk.

  • "There's going to be a time where we want the NFL to demonstrate ... that we can start taking a different road," epidemiologist Michael Mina told WashPost. "But I don't think, in the face of Omicron, that now is the time to do that."
  • Of note: The NHL has taken the most cautious approach, pausing its season two days earlier than planned. Teams will break for the holidays today and return on Sunday.

The big picture: The Biden administration is weighing a potentially "stark shift in messaging" that would — much like the NFL and NBA — focus on living with the virus, rather than beating it, CNN reports.

  • "We're getting to the point now where ... it's about severity," Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters last week. "It's not about cases."
  • "Sports leagues have made it as clear as possible that in an Omicron age, their future depends on making peace with the virus," writes NY Mag's Will Leitch. "That future looks increasingly like our own."

Go deeper: What to do about Omicron over the holidays

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