How And When Will US Sports Return To The Safe Zone?

Posted on May 21, 2020 - Last Updated on May 26, 2020

The job was always going to require immunologists. Developing a plan to safely relaunch college and professional sports is requiring foot doctors, too. Or at least one.

Dr. Glenn Copeland is walking the immunologists, players and coaches toward what sports may look like during a post-COVID-19 pandemic.

It will not be a quick fix, Copeland told PlayUSA, but it’s doable. He is comforting and yet sobering with his assessment.

He even jokes when asked which sports will be easiest to return: “The one sport we could have back today is fencing. You get a mask, you get gloves and if somebody comes within 6 feet, you get to stab them.”  

Two decades spent in clubhouses and training rooms as a team podiatrist for the Toronto Blue Jays has instilled knowledge of how crucial support systems must operate. As a consultant for QuestCap, Copeland serves as a liaison between those developing and administering tests for the novel coronavirus and those trying to keep them from becoming patients.

Tough task, tough choices 

Reopening the sports industry (and thus, many more options for US sports betting) is as complicated as throttling up the global economy.  

Athletes have no luxury of social distance. Neither do the coaches and trainers who form the ancillary village around their every activity. Players sweat, expel vapor with every gulp for air, touch teammates, opponents, weights and equipment. There is no amount of janitors and bottles of disinfectant to squelch every potential contamination point.  

These microscopic interactions have mammoth implications for the way sports are contested, consumed and increasingly bet upon. 

A recent Major League Baseball proposal for conducting a truncated season outlined the billions of dollars in TV revenue at stake from networks broadcasting games. Meanwhile, data from Australia reveals that fans are less interested in watching televised games devoid of fans.

Such is the playing field with an unseen and highly contagious novel coronavirus responsible for more than 300,000 worldwide deaths lurking potentially everywhere.

Copeland sees the spaces surrounding these athletes and the pathway to commencing sports again as a matter of “zones.” 

Under QuestCap’s guidance, navigating each zone would ensure avoiding the transmission of the virus to a competitor, the support staff or a fan.

How did an investment firm become a COVID-19 warrior?

Copeland describes QuestCap as a “humanitarian company formed to address climate issues” that now trades in expertise and the IgG and IgM antibody tests. It secured the right to market with a South Korean supplier in April. 

These rapid tests are the means to establish viral moats around athletes and perhaps convince leagues and players that it is safe to resume play.

Though he won’t divulge the teams, Copeland told PlayUSA that QuestCap has consulted with around 20 MLB, NBANFL and NHL teams. Just two of those are NFL franchises and “three to four” have retained the company’s services.

Even with the Bundesliga, NASCAR and UFC back to live, albeit fanless, competition, there is much work to do. 

For TV networks, leagues, sportsbooks, fans, or bettors who simply want games back, a relapse would be demoralizing and costly.

UFC 249, which used its anticontamination protocols, proceeded last week even after a fighter tested positive for the virus.

“I think it was really positive, given that one of the fighters tested positive for coronavirus and that he was able to be self-quarantined. It just showed that the system worked and that the sport was able to move forward to do so in a healthy competitive way. I think that was maybe a good barometer for things moving forward,” said the Circa Sports sportsbook operations manager Jeff Benson

“You certainly don’t want to rush things back and get hit with a second wave of things, where you do close and it may be (that it) ultimately hurts us more so than the first time.”

And that matters, because the pandemic has proven yet again how much sports matters to the American psyche, said Ted Leonsis during a video roundtable on re-opening sports, hosted by Revolution Growth. Leonsis owns the Washington NBA, NHL and WNBA franchises.

“When we see CNN and Fox and MSNBC all aggregating up in primetime, seven, eight million viewers, and then we watch a documentary on ESPN with Michael Jordan that gets eight million viewers, the NFL draft on Zoom getting 55 million viewers, it shows how important we are to the psyche and how important we are as a partner to media companies,” he said. “So I believe that we … can’t take anything for granted. That’s certainly how we maintain and show trust and have our fans really, really have a guilt-free experience, that they can come to games with each other and celebrate.”

How QuestCap aims restart of sports 

Copeland understands that games are not contested merely on fields and courts. They’re won or lost in weight rooms, training rooms and practice courts. 

Mitigating COVID-19 at the root is left to another QuestCap partner, Stanford Medicine neurologist and immunologist Dr. Lawrence Steinman.

In concert, and with their available supply of rapid and long-term antibody tests, they’ve established a system to insulate participants inside two zones of COVID-free security.

The so-called “outer zone,” Copeland said, “is the world. That’s where everybody exists.”

The middle zone, he said, “is usually taking place just inside or just outside the front door of the stadium where players and anybody coming to try and get into the inner zone has to go through.”

The inner zone, as much as testing can assure it, would be a pristine workspace.

“That middle zone is where the temperatures are taken, symptoms are done and the antibody testing is done and nobody gets into the inner zone until they’ve gone through the middle zone, the testing, the data collection, the review of the data, the temperature, the symptoms,” Copeland said. 

“Once they pass in that middle zone, then they’ve got a green light they’re then given if you will, a passport for 24 hours to go into the inner zone.

“Nobody gets into that inner zone until we’re convinced that by doing the testing the way we’re doing it, by doing the evaluation the way we’re doing it and it’s based on the data that we’ve got, that they’re COVID-free.”

Life inside the inner zone should provide, in theory, security and the comfort to work and play as normal. Colomba’s Categoria Primera became the first professional soccer league to begin using the system several weeks ago. 

They prepare to start training in June and resume games in August, according to that country’s Ministry of Work and Sport. The Bundesliga employed its stringent methodology to ensure the welfare of teams and officials before a fan-free slate of games was held.

While there is security inside the zones, there is no normalcy of the typical fraternal setting of a professional sports facility. And there is the understanding that an entire player’s life cannot be conducted there.

“Once in that inner zone, that, in essence, would be what we would consider to be, as best as we can, the COVID-free zone. And so they can play in that zone,” Copeland said. 

“They can work out in that zone. And, by working with the teams and starting slowly, where you have two players in the weight room, you’ll have two players in the trainers’ room, two players in the lunchroom.

“You might have two players at each end of the field. Bring them back the next day, do the exact same thing every single day because they leave the stadium, they go out to the other zone every evening. Then they come back the next day.

So, it’s day-to-day. Now, down the road, a month or two, when we start to see that we’re getting really good at this, that the data is showing that we don’t need to do the testing every day, we can punch it up to every two days. Maybe it’s every three days for testing, but every day for fevers and symptoms. So, this will be a moving target. It will be an evolving procedure and protocol,” said Copeland.

US pro teams likely to actively seek practice resumption in June

Movement in the US, Copeland said, could feasibly begin June 1 with the proper safeguards. The date of July 4 has been anecdotally cited as a potential return date for several US sports, including the MLB.

“I would guess — just knowing what I know on a day-to-day basis — that you’ll have a number of facilities up and running no later than the first of June for sure. I would say that you’ll probably have a few of them open probably by the Memorial Day weekend,” Copeland said.

“But again, there (are) so many things that come into play. It’s not just the league saying, ‘OK, you guys can open,’ because it’s the state and the city who will say, ‘Yeah, well, the league can say you can open, but we’re saying no.’ And, so we’ve run into that with three teams already in the NBA who want to get going. I must say too, that all the teams, all the teams are cooperating a hundred percent with all the authorities … There’s been no whining.”

Though proposals over a potential resumption have further exposed existing rifts between MLB and its players’ association, Copeland said QuestCap’s relationship with labor and management have been “unbelievably cooperative” in all pro leagues.

“There’s a huge cooperation everywhere. But what there is is this unknown,” he said. “And, until somebody does it, and until we can prove it can be done safely, there’s still that cautious, very cautious optimism.

“That’s where we’re at right now. We’re on the edge. I understand that there’s one or two NBA teams moving very, very slowly. One of the teams is doing the testing and the program, but you’re talking one-to-one, like two guys in the weight room having everything wiped down. In between, a player touching any machine gets wiped down immediately. Even though there’s that feeling that it’s as COVID-free as possible, we’re not taking any chances at all. So, it’s as I like to refer to it, it’s baby steps.”

Single-venue option not perfect, but may be a starting point

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is doubtful that sports will be played in his city this year. Also, the spikes of cases are likely to impact large urban areas as mitigation protocols are relaxed. As a result, the leagues are likely to require alternate venue options.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has proclaimed his state open for professional sports business without fans.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis deemed professional sports as “essential” entities, shilled for NASCAR and the PGA to come on down and finally landed a series of UFC bouts in Jacksonville.

Copeland believes games will ultimately resume this way, presenting more variables. The shutdown of the NHL quickly followed that of the NBA in mid-March in part because those league’s teams shared numerous venues and locker rooms. That’s a lot of players to test and safeguard.

Then, there’s the quality of life.

“One of the things I just ran into, you have a situation where if you do one venue and you have 50 teams in one venue,” Copeland said. “That means the inner zone is from the hotel to the ballpark and back to the hotel.

“That means there’s no room for spouses. There’s no room for kids; there’s no room for anybody else. So that means that the player is going to be without their family for three months, four months, six months, whatever it’s going to be. And are they prepared to do that? And, truly, how safe is that? How do you lock the front doors? How do you keep fans away from the front door? How do you keep people away?

So, you have to look at the realistic versus the practical approach versus a perfect-world approach. And that’s really been an issue for all of us. Most of the people we’ve spoken to recognize twofold: one, players — whether it’s girls or guys — have to take some major responsibility for self-regulation. You can’t go to a bar, you can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t do a number of things, you can’t have friends and widespread family around you.”

Copeland believes that leagues will be able to expand their venue choices once institutional knowledge is established from the opening months of play.

But what about sports fans and spectators?

Copeland fervently asserts that the safety and well-being of fans are as important as athletes and team personnel. Concocting a way to assure safety without a vaccine, herd immunity or treatment for COVID-19 will likely convert fandom to a remote event for the near future.

“The day of the fans in the stadium, for now, it’s not going to happen, in our opinion,” he said. “How do you control 20, 30, 50, 75,000 people coming in and saying that you can almost assure everybody that in that type of setting, that you’re not going to have anybody with COVID? I don’t see those days for this season, anyways. And rightfully so.

“It’s not a matter of freedom. It’s a matter of not being able to clearly protect the fans. Fans, for the most part, don’t get within 6 feet of the players, so that’s not the big issue. You have to protect the fans, and there’s no way I want them going to a stadium with 50,000 people where you might have five people unknowingly infected.

“The high-fiving, the hugging, lining up for beer, people hugging each other, they’re not doing anything that they wouldn’t normally do and it’s not trying to be malicious. But they hug the wrong guy or girl; guess what? The transmission is easy.”

But the communal experience of attending games, the infusion of the type of energy that was notably absent on Saturday with only players and coaches’ calls echoing off empty grandstands in Germany. It will not be lost forever, Copeland believes. Fans will first be allowed to return, and after a period of apprehension sure to be endured by the airline and movie theater industries, patrons will return.

“I think fans are going to get used to you watching at home,” he said, “But I really do think that if everybody’s a little bit patient and accepts that at least you can turn the TV on and not watch the 1997 World Series and watch live sports, take that first step.

“But until we get the vaccine, I don’t think we’re going to be real comfortable with a whole bunch of people in a given room.”

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Players, owners feeling their way in this unknown landscape

Copeland conceded that the coterie of ownership and league commissioners and player unions are “constantly going around in circles” about their responses is understandable.

It is new territory. Lengthy conversations and consultations seem to yield a consensus or plan, but upon consultation, more questions.

“They just don’t know what to do. We’ll talk about the outer circle, inner circle, and then, they go back to the owner and the GM or whoever, and then they’ll say, ‘Well, can we extend the outer circle?’ or ‘Do we have to do testing every day?’” Copeland related.

“So, everybody’s trying to figure out how you do it. And then the player’s association will call and say, ‘So, OK, that sounds like a great idea. Should we do this? Could we do that?’ And there’s just so many variables of that until you do it and say this is what’s worked and this is what’s worked for 20 teams or eight teams or this is what worked for the NHL or NBA.”

What sports are more or less conducive to quick and safe return?

The Bundesliga returned on Saturday. NASCAR returned after a 10-week layoff to a Darlington Raceway devoid of spectators on Sunday. UFC has already returned, as has rodeo. Still, the leaders of the “big four” North American sports continue to wade through everything from health guidelines to labor acrimony in finding their path.

“It’s hopeful that we will have some Major League Baseball this summer. We are making plans about playing in empty stadiums,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told CNN on Thursday as tensions rise with players.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell drew the ire of fans last week when he said in a Twitch stream that he would not accept a pay cut this season because “the risk is through the roof.”

Added the 2018 Cy Young Award winner: “Bro, I’m risking my life. What do you mean it should not be a thing? It should 100% be a thing. If I’m gonna play, I should be getting the money I signed to be getting paid.”

It was never going to be easy. In the case of MLB, which already faced brewing labor unrest, the economics have gotten messy. MLB projects a $4 billion loss if it doesn’t play a season. But the medical aspect of the return must be a source of consensus. In his interactions, it has been so far, Copeland said.

But some sports will inherently be more difficult to usher back safely.

Contact sports like football, hockey, boxing and basketball will be expectedly nettlesome. According to the New York Times, UFC reportedly shirked safety protocols even after fighter Ronaldo Souza and two handlers were quarantined after testing positive before UFC 249. Baseball is less contact-laden, though the home plate is hardly a model of social distancing.

“Outside of fencing, we don’t have the perfect sport, but tennis and golf to me, NASCAR, I’m pretty comfortable,” Copeland said. “Again, if a guy’s crew and the people in each crew are minimized and tested, I think you can bring up a fair bit of safety to that.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the inner circle for swimming, golf, tennis. It’s when you get into the contact sports or areas that you’re going to have, even in baseball, when you’re in the field is pretty much social distancing. But not at the plate. You have the umpire, you have the catcher, and you have a batter and they are within 4 or 5 feet of each other.

“So, is it a perfectly safe sport? No. But again, if everybody’s tested properly and you can get into the inner circle and have passed your test, we think that you have a very strong chance that COVID is not going to rear its ugly head.”

Brant James Avatar
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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