DENVER – U.S. sports leagues are seeing rapidly increasing COVID-19 outbreaks with dozens of players in health and safety protocols, amid an ongoing surge by the delta variant of the coronavirus and rising cases of the highly transmissible omicron mutation.
Both the NBA and NHL have had to postpone games over the last month with so many players sidelined, and the men's basketball teams at Tulane and the University of Washington have seen cancellations due to outbreaks in their programs. The NFL won’t postpone games, saying forfeits could be in play instead.
The difficulties for U.S. sports come on the heels of soaring infections in Europe, where English Premier League officials called off three soccer matches in four days due to the virus and the German government temporarily restricted Bundesliga arenas to 50% attendance or 15,000 fans.
But don’t expect the U.S. leagues to return to “bubble” play or shut down for a couple of weeks to let things subside.
“The way our system is set up now, an infection triggers a chain of events and that leads to confusion, disruption, mayhem. But from a medical respect, these people are mainly vaccinated and not going to go to the hospital,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
“We’re in a very different world from a year ago. … It’s not too bad for young, healthy athletes," Chin-Hong added.
And there's too much financially at stake for leagues to consider shutdowns, given the millions upon millions of dollars lost when sports took a hiatus last year. There's also fan pressure to take into account.
“The short answer is money. It’s what’s driving (the leagues’) decisions to continue to play, even in the face of these outbreaks,” said Nola Agha, a professor of sports management at the University of San Francisco.
“I don’t think they will reduce the number of fans or shut down the entire season," she continued. "I think they will continue to do the best they can within local health department guidelines, which might reduce the number of fans.”
In Canada on Wednesday, the country's largest province, Ontario — home to the NBA's Toronto Raptors and the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators — set a cap of 50% of capacity for large gatherings such as professional sports events.
So far the NHL has had the most postponed games for a league in North America this season, with 10. The Senators were first in mid-November, followed by the Calgary Flames and the Carolina Hurricanes this week. On Wednesday alone, the Nashville Predators added six players and six staff members to the health and safety protocols, and Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron went in as well.
The omicron variant is mostly responsible for the uptick in NHL cases, according to a person with direct knowledge of discussions between the league and the NHL Players’ Association, but it does not account for all positive tests. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
The person also said the NHL is reintroducing enhanced COVID-19 protocols including restricting players to their hotels while on the road and bringing back daily testing through at least Jan. 7.
Interim coach Derek King of the Chicago Blackhawks, who were supposed to play the Flames this week, said the team has been reinforcing with players the importance of social distancing, hygiene and avoiding crowds.
“Just really knuckle down, because we don’t want to be one of those teams that’s got to rearrange their schedule because we have COVID,” King said.
The NBA also has several stars in COVID-19 protocols right now, including the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Brooklyn Nets' James Harden. As of Wednesday afternoon, 33 players — about 6.5% of the league — were in the protocols, with 17 of those playing for either Chicago or Brooklyn.
The Bulls had games postponed Tuesday and Thursday because they didn’t have enough players available, while Brooklyn played with an NBA-minimum roster of eight on Tuesday.
That same night, when Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry set a record for career three-pointers at New York's Madison Square Garden, NBA commissioner Adam Silver wasn't in the audience — both he and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum have been undergoing daily testing after attending an event hosted by Toronto president Masai Ujiri, who tested positive soon after.
“Like the rest of the country, and as was predicted by our infectious disease specialists, we have seen an increase of cases around the league,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said Wednesday, adding that the league will continue to be guided by science and data and cooperate with the Players Association.
The NBA says 97% of players are vaccinated and just over 60% have received booster shots.
Preeti Malani, the University of Michigan's chief health officer, an infectious disease expert and a member of two Big Ten COVID-19 advisory committees, said boosters will be “essential” to avoiding schedule disruptions.
“The biggest thing we can do, whether it's sports or school or workplace, is to be highly vaccinated. … That means being boosted in addition to the primary series," Malani said.
The NFL is perhaps fortunate in that most of its games are played outdoors, so there’s less risk for fans.
But the league is having its worst outbreak in terms of players on the reserve/COVID list: Eighty-eight tested positive Monday and Tuesday, and several more were added Wednesday including eight on the Washington Football Team. The L.A. Rams have 16 on the list.
It's a small percentage for a league with about 2,200 players between active rosters, injured reserves and practice squads. But omicron could cause that to rise quickly.
New York Giants coach Joe Judge said his players are now wearing masks indoors and are spaced out more in meetings.
“Anyone who’s been involved in any kind of a close contact or test at this point has either been removed or separated from the team, and they’re in virtual meetings,” Judge said.
The NFL Players Association has raised alarms for months about the league moving from daily to weekly testing, which hampers detection of outbreaks.
Chin-Hong of UCSF said they're right to be concerned and the NFL should rethink the policy.
“(Testing) once a week is so 2020,” he said. “We have the technology to do it several times a day.”
On the college level, there have been some other cancellations besides the ones involving Tulane and Washington: Cleveland State men's basketball; Iowa women's basketball; and a postponed Cal Bears football game.
The American Athletic Conference, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference and Big East all told AP that their policies haven't changed since the beginning of the school year: Teams unable to play conference games will forfeit. ___
Associated Press Sports writers Tim Reynolds, John Wawrow, Jay Cohen, Ralph Russo and Tom Canavan contributed to this report.