A coronavirus mess in Russian soccer raises nightmarish questions for American sports

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has a big task on his hands. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The NBA’s nightmare scenario unfolded 6,000 miles away from Disney World last week, in two seaside cities in southwestern Russia.

On Wednesday, 48 hours before a Russian Premier League soccer match, six players from FC Rostov tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Friday, when Rostov’s game at PFC Sochi kicked off, those six players and all of their teammates were self-isolating at home.

Over the next two hours, a patchwork squad of teenage replacements lost 10-1. Rostov’s push for a Champions League berth froze. And a frightening question facing every major sport met a frightening answer.

The RPL resumed, amid a pandemic its nation has failed to corral, with strict coronavirus protocols, just like American leagues will over the coming weeks. And it learned, just like American leagues will, that the 100-plus-page documents and intensive plans are the easy part.

“Like most war plans,” says Vanderbilt infectious disease specialist Bill Schaffner, “they’re great until the war starts.”

The hard part is what happens when the virus tears them to shreds.

The NBA’s protocols aren’t the RPL’s, and U.S. sports should be better protected. But what happens when Rostov-lite hits Disney? When a few NBA stars test positive the day before the conference semifinals? Or when a starting quarterback is forced into quarantine on the eve of a rivalry game? What then?

The headaches of handling positive tests

Whether COVID-19 will infiltrate sports bubbles remains to be seen. The German Bundesliga and other top Western European soccer leagues have so far evaded it. But American leagues are concerned. The virus is spreading through Florida, where the NBA, WNBA and MLS will encamp next month. Bubble building “is a reasonable task,” says Jared Baeten, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington. “But it has to go hand-in-hand with good public health measures in the communities surrounding it.”

And that’s where European and American environments diverge. The UK, Spain, Italy and Germany reported a combined 2,476 cases on Saturday. Florida alone reported 4,049. Whereas those European nations have suppressed the virus, it’s once again rising in the U.S. Florida is more analogous to Russia than Germany. Which is why the Rostov situation, coupled with outbreaks in MLB and college football, and with positive tests in the NWSL, MLS and NFL, sparks worry.

And not just individual health worry. That’s paramount, or at least should be, but sports seem willing to forge ahead despite it. The other worry is whether they can forge ahead uninterrupted, with an uncorrupted product. Rostov, technically, played on despite the positive tests. But Friday’s game was a farce.

European soccer’s coronavirus navigation exposes the lack of painless solutions for positive tests. In Russia, they required a team-wide quarantine. The RPL suggested postponing games, but only if both teams could agree to a new date. Rostov’s opponent, Sochi, refused. So Rostov called a youth team back from vacation to play against pros. The kids hadn’t trained in three months. They got smashed.

The postponement alternative, however, brings alternative headaches. Russia will try it after three Dynamo Moscow players tested positive on Saturday. Germany tried it when two players from Dynamo Dresden, a second-division club, tested positive for COVID-19 last month. The entire team quarantined to “break an infection chain,” as their doctor put it. Games were rescheduled. But that meant eight matches in 22 days for Dresden, a draining stretch run that left the club relegated and players in tears.

“The [German league] doesn’t care,” one said in an emotional postgame interview. “We’re the ones paying the f***ing price.”

Sports leagues have crammed rigid schedules into finite time periods. The NBA has set start dates for each round of its playoffs. Flexibility is limited. A bevy of postponements is unfeasible. Extended, full-team isolation is the safest response to a positive test, experts say. It’s essentially what the CDC recommends to the general public. But, as Schaffner says, it “throws the whole schedule out of whack.”

Which is why the NBA appears prepared to try a different strategy.

How would the NBA handle a coronavirus outbreak?

The NBA’s plan to test players “regularly,” and in some cases daily, should prevent a Rostov-like outbreak, experts say. Six positive tests, in theory, shouldn’t show up in one batch. The “up-front investment” in frequent testing, says Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney, should limit player-to-player spread. And the NBA’s 113-page “Health and Safety Protocols” document distributed last week makes clear that one positive test won’t shut down the league.

It could, however, still wreak havoc.

“It seems almost impossible to imagine the virus won’t get inside the bubble,” Baeten says. So let’s imagine that it does in early September. Imagine that the day between Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Player X — a starter for Team A — tests positive. Then consider this:

  • Player X will be quarantined and won’t play again for at least 14 days, leaving Team A shorthanded.

  • Even if Player X tested negative 24 hours earlier, there’s a chance, experts say, that he could have infected any player he shared the floor with during Game 3, or anybody else he came into close contact with throughout the day.

  • Anybody infected by Player X at Game 3 and tested the following day will almost surely return a false negative. And they likely will again the following day. And the day after that. The virus takes time to incubate. Officials won’t know how many peers Player X has infected until at least a few days after Player X’s positive test.

  • Any players he has infected, meanwhile, could spread the virus to others before testing positive themselves.

Testing is useful but fallible. This is why isolation of all “close contacts” of a COVID-positive individual has become common practice, in society and sports leagues alike. But in the NBA, isolation of “close contacts” would require postponements or forfeits. One or two might be stomachable. Any significant number is not.

So let’s say the league postpones Game 4, and reschedules it for the following day, with plans to forge ahead. … 

  • What if, knowing that Player X’s teammates — Players Y and Z — could be infectious, several opponents refuse to play?

  • What if Team A wins Game 4 and sweeps the series — and then, a day later, Players Y and Z test positive? Do the conference finals go ahead with Team A missing three of its best players? Do other teammates have to isolate because they remained in “close contact” with Players Y and Z? Does this whole dang thing have a big fat asterisk next to it?

There are really only two scenarios that don’t lead to a competitively corrupted mess. The first is that the bubble proves impermeable. The second is that it isn’t, but that every potential outbreak is nipped in the bud, protocols preempt positive tests from multiplying, and are lenient enough to allow the season to continue apace.

The first scenario, experts say, is unlikely.

The second, in short, will require constant vigilance, on-the-fly adjustments and significant luck. Three months of it.

Every professional sports league will face some versions of these questions in 2020. For now, while everything remains theoretical, they can be brushed off. When the virus interrupts, they’ll come knocking, inescapably, without good answers. Only more questions.

Leagues and schools want money, and society wants normalcy, but do sports represent it when they’re extremely abnormal? When a mediocre college football team wins its conference via forfeits? When a fifth-seed wins an NBA title because the coronavirus cleared its path? What then? What was the point? Were all the ludicrous contingency plans and health risks and trepidation and potentially damaged lungs worthwhile?

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