If you have been keeping tabs on the MLB’s delayed season so far, you no doubt know that it is not going too well from a player safety stand point. The league has already had to postpone or cancel a number of games due to coronavirus outbreaks within two separate clubs. 21 members of the Miami Marlins organization tested positive for the virus. At least 13 members of the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive and that number is still rising. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has already started to discuss potentially shutting down the season.
It is at this point that I’m sure the league and potentially many of its players wish they had opted for a bubble format like other professional sports leagues. The NWSL ran it’s Challenge Cup tournament without a hitch. MLS had some hiccups at the very beginning of it’s tournament, but things have been smooth sailing since teams entered the bubble. The WNBA and NBA have gotten off to strong starts. The NHL has no positive tests inside its bubble so far.
Baseball clearly looks to be in trouble. MLB seems to be at a loss for how to isolate and prevent these outbreaks from spreading through teams like wildfire. Red flags are going up all over the place for college football and the NFL as a result.
Despite the warning signs, Roger Goodell and the rest of the NFL’s league office are resistant to forming a bubble for the 2020 season. The league is plowing ahead with restrictions and safety protocols in place at training camps.
There are not even plans in place to build a potential bubble. As a result, dozens of players are opting out and even more find themselves on the newly created COVID-19/Reserve list to open training camp.
With fans not allowed to attend games in many states and percentage caps implemented at stadiums in others, it is hard to understand why the NFL is not at least attempting to create a bubble plan. It seems like many traditional revenue streams for teams will be interrupted this season, so I would imagine cutting costs would be a priority. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the league’s finances, but eliminating weekly travel would likely cut down on a huge expense for each franchise.
There would be plenty of costs that come with securing a bubble site large enough to accommodate all the players, coaches, trainers, medical staff, referees and more that go into staging an NFL season. You can’t do this for free, but the league has the finances to make it happen.
I understand it also might be a bit of a tough sell for players to commit to leaving their families to live in a bubble for the next four to six months, but that is the price of playing football in 2020. I totally respect players opting out for their own safety or for the safety of their families. I know that creating a bubble puts some strain on these athletes, but it is clear based on what is happening in baseball that without the bubble, the risk of spreading the virus is much higher. Let me reiterate it from before: the bubble works!
From a player and public safety perspective, the bubble set up seems to be the only way the 2020 season will be able to take place. MLB’s early blunders underlines how difficult it is to limit the spread of the virus with larger rosters traveling across the country.
For college football, it is much easier said than done to craft a bubble scenario. Universities have taken some larger steps to account for the concerns that come with playing the sport during the pandemic. All the Power 5 conferences have announced plans to play conference-only schedules this season. The ACC and Big 12 did throw in the added wrinkle of one non-conference game to be included in the 2020 schedule.
Cutting down or eliminating non-conference games limits travel to some degree, but not as much as would be considered the safest measure possible. These teams still will be traveling to multiple states across the country, the travel will simply be more regionalized. Emphasis on more here because conferences like the ACC still have travel involving Massachusetts, Indiana and Georgia.
Unfortunately, due to the massive number of teams in Division I, it would be impossible to create a bubble setting for all of college football. The potential for a conference-only bubble to work is much higher, but there are still hurdles that would need to be cleared, including many the NFL would not face given the makeup of the player pool.
Even if these conferences found appropriate sites to host these bubble seasons, student-athletes would still need to attend classes. While some would undoubtedly be able to take classes online, it is unlikely every athlete would be able to take every class virtually.
It also feels like a lot more to ask of athletes who technically hold amateur status to isolate in a bubble for three or so months.
Look, I am not pretending this is an easy issue to solve. In fact, I am acknowledging that it is very difficult. However, I think it is pretty easy to connect the dots here regarding which formula works and which one does not. It is time to start taking the appropriate steps to suitably prepare for the season.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This virus has killed over 150 thousand people in the U.S. alone. It is disproportionately affecting communities of color. People of color make up the majority of NFL and college football rosters. If we really want to place high priority on bringing back sports, we need to do so in the safest way possible, recognizing the impact potential missteps could have on local communities. That is clearly establishing a bubble format. It’s time for the NFL to change its tune and for college football to start getting as creative as possible.