If sports leagues can 'live with COVID-19,' it's because they have the money to do so

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Players from the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers skate before an empty Bell Centre on Dec. 16. The province of Quebec requested the team play without fans to help curb rising COVID-19 cases. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Players from the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers skate before an empty Bell Centre on Dec. 16. The province of Quebec requested the team play without fans to help curb rising COVID-19 cases. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Late Monday night, news broke that the National Hockey League, amid a steep surge in COVID-19 cases, would suspend operations from Dec. 22 through Dec. 25. Players could return to team facilities beginning Dec. 26, but the extended holiday hiatus would further lengthen an already growing list of postponed games.

If we're prioritizing the health of players as they travel from city to city, changing clothes in cramped locker rooms, interacting with fans, and stumbling into other ways to spread the virus to people outside the NHL community, then the temporary shutdown is about as predictable as the Jacksonville Jaguars firing Urban Meyer.

With every trend headed in the same direction — by Monday, 15 per cent of the NHL's on-ice workforce were under COVID-19 protocol — a big executive action became a matter of time, and not choice.

(Players required to enter a league's health and safety protocols have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has. Once on the list, they must isolate for a period or return multiple negative tests 24 hours apart in order to return to play.)

But dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks, which are increasingly common in the Age of Omicron, costs leagues and teams money. Testing costs add up, as does the price of new players to replace the people in protocol.

In Toronto, the Leafs and Raptors have been grappling with how to accommodate thousands of ticket holders now shut out of Scotiabank Arena because of newly imposed capacity limits. Fewer fans in the building means fewer sales on everything from beer to jerseys, and the people hustling to solve these dilemmas don't work for free, either.

Given the broader sports industry's reluctance to shut off the money faucet, even the five-day pause the NHL has ordered qualifies as a bold move. It also tells you how far we've come since March 2020, when a handful of positive tests among National Basketball Association players prompted the whole pro sports industry to shut down, and had us all watching the UFC and Korean pro baseball for our live sports fix.

WATCH | Epidemiologist suggests sports avoid full-capacity crowds:

Back then, pro sports sent a message the rest of us heeded, if we were smart: COVID-19 is for real, so let's take it seriously.

And the message now, as NBA teams press ahead with full arenas and empty benches, and the National Football League shuffles games around, while relaxing test requirements for vaccinated players?

Learn to live with COVID-19… if you can afford it… like we can.

Perfect. As soon as I sign a nine-figure broadcast deal, I'll go right back to the life I led in January of 2020. The rest of you can wrestle with Omicron on your own. If you don't get too sick, stay home and watch the game. And if you wind up getting infected, stay home and watch the game, unless you land in the hospital.

If you're looking for good news, cling to the preponderance of asymptomatic cases among the current crop of pro sports positive tests. They help explain how somebody like Odell Beckham Jr. can light up the Cardinals on a Monday night, and land in COVID-19 protocol the next morning. The virus is sneaking inside players' bodies, but, like the Cleveland Browns' offence on a crucial fourth-quarter drive, it can't make progress.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You can also find encouragement in early reports that Omicron infections trigger only mild symptoms.

But the natural next question is, mild compared to what?

Death? Breathing tubes? Brain fog?

Effects on athletes vs. general population

A lot of people, including Washington Wizards guard and former COVID-19 patient Bradley Beal, list the loss of taste and smell as mild symptoms, and I disagree. Cancel two of your five senses on short notice, and you're in danger. If you walk into a room that's full of natural gas, you want your nose to inform your brain immediately, so you can decide to stay or go.

We also need to pause before we project Omicron's effect on pro athletes onto the general population. Pro athletes, like the university students also battling outbreaks, are a young, fit, healthy, and — if their disclosures are honest — highly vaccinated cohort. And as Jacob Stern points out in an Atlantic article outlining the impact of the virus surge on the sports industry, pro athletes are also more heavily monitored then regular people can ever hope to be.

If stringent testing catches this many cases, symptomatic and otherwise, among pro sports teams, how fast is the bug spreading among folks without the luxury of regular screening?

WATCH | Leagues forced to reconsider schedules, protocols amid rise in case count:

Faster than a lie, according to available numbers. Ontario alone has seen an average of 3,800 new COVID-19 cases per day this week, even though three-quarters of the population has received at least two vaccine doses. In that environment, if pro sports teams decide they can adjust schedules without a full shutdown, and that it's better to learn to live with COVID-19, it's because they have the money to make those choices.

They have near-unlimited access to tests. Civilians either make appointments and wait, or pay at the pharmacy for quicker service, or play Hunger Games to access the rapid tests the Ontario government has been giving away.

If a pro athlete tests positive, they enter COVID-19 protocol, which nobody expects them to leave until they're healthy. Elsewhere in society, it's hit-or-miss on paid sick leave, which means sick people can both get sicker, and share the bug with co-workers. So if pro sports are setting an example on how we should try to tackle this pandemic, the industry is also highlighting another way in which most folks can't afford to follow along.

You want to train like LeBron James? You can't. You fit basketball, training and recovery around your job. Basketball, training and recovery are James' job. After the first day of his off-season regimen, he comes back for day two. You might need a week to recuperate. Or you might need a month.

You want to learn to live with COVID-19? You need easy access to testing, and time off work. Pro sports teams can provide those tools to players. The rest of us need help, from somewhere.

In the meantime, the games will go on, because people have paid for tickets and teams would rather not forfeit that revenue. And because broadcast time is valuable — both to fulfill fat contracts and to grow the audience. The last time the major sports leagues shut down, we filled the void with The Last Dance, and Hafthor Bjornsson's feats of strength.

Enjoyable stopgaps, and bright spots in a dark time. Something to remember when we're not reminiscing about Tiger King.

But no major pro sports outlet is eager to cede the spotlight again. Experts say Omicron will keep spreading, but leagues have decided they'll ride this wave. The show might slow down, as the NHL has demonstrated, but it won't stop.

At least not for Omicron.

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