The opening of the NFL season last weekend represented a milestone of sorts for sports. The NFL was one of the last major professional sports leagues to get back into action in the Covid-19 world. With lockdowns beginning last March in Europe and Asia and then spreading to the United States and elsewhere, sports leagues worldwide paused as the virus fanned out, and the cancellation of games cost leagues billions of dollars. The road back, starting in early May with soccer in Germany, seemed fraught with peril, as critics—including sportswriters, medical experts, players, and politicians—warned that it was dangerous and irresponsible to start up again. Since then, the coronavirus has loomed heavily over the coverage of pro sports, with practically every case of a player testing positive making headlines.
What’s received much less attention, however, are the medical outcomes. Despite hundreds of thousands of tests, vanishingly few serious cases have been reported among professional athletes. Most players testing positive had apparently few or no symptoms. Considering the fears and uncertainties the leagues have faced, it’s a remarkable story—one that much of the media has strangely seemed uninterested in telling. Why?
There was no shortage of drama and even panic as the sports world confronted Covid earlier this year. A March headline in the New York Times sports section asked ominously, “Does Coronavirus Mean the End of Sports as We Know Them?” The Washington Post warned, “No Sports Until 2021? It’s Possible.” As talk emerged of how and when professional leagues might get restarted, the San Jose Mercury News demanded, “Shut Down Sports During COVID-19 Pandemic.” Some political leaders concurred. At the end of April, French president Emmanuel Macron, not waiting to see how the virus played out in Europe, announced that he was cancelling the already-suspended season of Ligue 1, the country’s top soccer league. Reports added that Macron was lobbying other European nations to follow suit. A week later, when Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, announced that it would attempt to come back later that month, Macron apparently tried to get German officials to shut it down. Later, when it became clear that authorities in most countries wouldn’t let fans return to games, media critics found yet another reason not to go forward. “Sports without fans will be dreadful, and we all know it,” the Chicago Tribune argued. “Write off the 2020 season.”
As the leagues got ready to reopen, most teams gave players the opportunity to opt out. A few with worries, such as players with babies at home or with underlying health conditions, took advantage of the offers, but most didn’t. Professional athletes are among the healthiest and best-cared for people on the planet, with few of the health problems that produce the worst outcomes from the disease. In the United States, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control has reported that 94 percent of those who died from Covid had contributing factors or characteristics including diabetes, obesity, and cardiac disease—conditions rare among top athletes. One study estimated that just 0.1 percent of all Covid deaths in the U.S. occurred among individuals without underlying conditions between the age of 20 to 29—the age demographic most characteristic of professional athletes. Even so, the press was filled with doubts from media critics and others. USA Today devoted a story to NFL legend Joe Montana’s claim in August that he would have opted out of playing because “this thing is killing people everywhere.”
From the moment sports started back up, the media seemed alarmed, or determined to alarm its audience. When ten German soccer players tested positive just days after officials announced plans to restart the league, the news caromed around the world. England’s Premier League did 14 rounds of Covid testing between the middle of May, when teams began training again, and mid-July—and each round that brought even a single positive test was followed by extensive headlines. In the U.S., the NBA and the professional men’s and women’s soccer leagues took a different approach from Europe, putting players in isolation in training camp-type environments and playing all games in a few nearby venues. Still, just making it into these so-called “bubbles” seemed a race against time; 25 NBA players tested positive in the weeks leading up to their isolation. The wisdom of trying to play games seemed doubtful when an outbreak of cases on the Miami Marlins baseball team prompted Major League Baseball to cancel a series of games. “As More Players Test Positive, Can MLB Be Trusted to Protect Them?” the Los Angeles Times asked.
Virtually all this reporting exclusively involved positive tests. But even calling these “cases,” as the media often do, is a stretch, because that implies disease or a condition where medical treatment is needed. The truth: actual cases have been rare, at least as far as we know. Few statistics exist on this because many leagues, often in the name of protecting player privacy, have offered little follow-up to their announcements about test results. What’s clear from the statistics that are made available, though, is that the infection rate for those athletes involved in return to play is vanishingly small, and that they may have been more protected by resuming work with their teams, especially as societies gradually reopened. The Premier League, for instance, ran some 20,500 tests in its 14 rounds between the middle of May and mid-July. According to the league’s own website, only 20 players tested positive, a rate of just 0.1 percent, or about one in 1,000 tests—lower than most estimates for the virus’s spread throughout the general population.
In the rare cases where more detailed reporting is available, it’s notable that even among the small number of positive cases, few players developed symptoms. Though news of the first ten German players to test positive prompted speculation that the league would call off the restart, none of those ten displayed symptoms. Shortly before the European women’s Champions League was to resume in mid-August, officials announced five positive tests among players at Spain’s Athletico Madrid, but subsequent reporting showed that all five were asymptomatic. When 16 NBA players tested positive in late June heading to the league’s “bubble” in Orlando, league commissioner Adam Silver noted all were either asymptomatic or displayed mild symptoms.
Given the media alarm about mere positive results, it’s unlikely that many actual cases would have gone unreported in the press, especially if they involved something as serious as hospitalizations. Yet searching worldwide databases of news articles, one can find few accounts of professional athletes who developed anything remotely approaching grave sickness. In March, 30-year-old Brazilian soccer player Dorielton, playing in China’s second division of professional soccer, was hospitalized after falling sick while away in Bangok after his league suspended play due to the virus. In late April, 23-year-old French soccer player Junior Sambia was hospitalized for Covid while Ligue I was suspended; doctors later placed him in an induced coma. He recovered and returned to training with his team in mid-June.
But with each new stage in the worldwide return-to-play, the media’s largely speculative panic has amped up. The NFL’s new season represents the latest danger because, as the argument goes, many players are highly vulnerable. An early August article in the Charlotte Observer, for instance, labeled nearly half the players on the Carolina Panthers at “severe risk” from Covid because of underlying conditions. The chief problem, the article said, was that many players are obese, and that makes them twice as likely to be hospitalized from the virus as the general population, research shows. Obesity is clinically defined as individuals with a body mass index higher than 30, which describes many of the footballers. Yet professional athletes are hardly representative of the average “obese” person because the players are often highly conditioned. The article quoted the players’ union medical director saying that it was a myth that being in shape would protect NFL players—yet in scientific circles, criticism of the BMI index for precisely this reason are common. “BMI doesn’t take into account the increased weight of muscle compared with fat—some athletes have high BMIs, despite being very fit, for example,” an article from Britain’s National Health Service points out. The Observer article offered the example of Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who contracted Covid in the spring and had difficulty breathing. But Miller has asthma, a condition far less common among athletes than a BMI above 30.
The NFL offered players the choice to opt out of the season and still get paid—$350,000 if a player is considered to have risk factors and $150,000 if he has none. Some 67 players did so by the deadline in late July. Meantime, among those playing, the NFL conducted nearly 45,000 tests at the end of August—with just one positive.
Exactly why sports media have been so uninterested in the success that most leagues have had in getting started again is unclear—but many fans have noticed. Clay Travis, the radio host, sportswriter, and founder of the iconoclastic sports website Outkick, has dubbed sports journalists who relentlessly lobby to shut down sports “coronabros.” In a Twitter poll he hosted, some 77 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that sports media are “rooting against sports coming back.” When journalist Darren Rovell, who covers sports and business and has been among those accused by Travis of being a “coronabro,” brought the survey to his Twitter followers, 48 percent agreed with Travis’s statement.
Many leagues in Europe are already getting ready for another season, having finished their suspended ones over the summer. That should produce a burst of optimism. Yet headlines more often warn, “New Premier League season at risk of chaos” and “Covid chaos.” When six players from French soccer team PSG tested positive after going on vacation, a headlined proclaimed, “PSG decimated by coronavirus,” though all seemed asymptomatic and quickly returned after quarantine.
Maybe with the NFL’s heavier-than-average players, or with cold-weather virus conditions returning in Europe and the U.S., the media’s coronabros will yet have their day. Still, it’s striking to watch a substantial part of the sports media bet against itself and the industry that it covers. Between the hyper-politicization of the players themselves and the media’s apparent desire to shut down the games, it’s a strange time to be a sports fan.
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