Snow-covered stands and an empty field loomed ominously in Saskatchewan last weekend for what was supposed to be the 108th Grey Cup championship game capping Canada’s professional football season.
Instead, it was a reminder of differences between how Canada has handled sports during the pandemic compared to this country. There was no Grey Cup for the first time since 1919 because no football – pro, college or high school – was played in Canada this year compared to U.S. teams trying to scrounge enough non-COVID-19-impacted players together for games amid a national infection rate four times higher and a death toll 2½ times greater per capita than our northern neighbor.
Canada’s various governments decided by summer that allowing major sports to continue as usual was too risky and polls showed the public supporting that call. So, professional sports teams were sent packing to temporary U.S. homes, others were made to play in “bubble” zones while universities, junior hockey and other amateur leagues mostly ceased playing.
By comparison, the U.S. has had no clear federal guidance, with individual states and municipalities left to dictate rules that vary greatly.
This isn’t the first time the two countries have diverged at the intersection of sports and public policy; Americans typically more financially and politically accommodating to leagues, teams, players and the corporate interests surrounding them. But our country’s modern obsession with sports never had life-and-death consequences of a pandemic attached.
“I think sports here are seen as more essential,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, professor and founding head of the division of medical ethics at the NYU School of Medicine and member of the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory committee. ‘I’ve actually jokingly said in some interviews and op-ed pieces that if you ask Americans to list some essential workers, they might not list firefighters or Amazon delivery people. They’d probably list sports people. That doesn’t seem to me to be the Canadian attitude.”
Should sports be prioritized?
With about 280,000 deaths in this country and the pandemic raging nationwide, some question why sports continue to be prioritized amid testing shortages, overtaxed hospitals and evidence that staging athletic events contributes to social gatherings health experts warn us to avoid.
In a somber example of Caplan’s essential-worker joke, a union representing 4,000 registered nurses employed by UCLA last week staged a protest demanding front-line medical workers get tested for COVID-19 exposure at the same rigorous level as the public school’s football team.
Caplan last week co-authored an article for the Stat medical news website — along with NYU senior research colleague Lisa Kearns and Dr. Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania — claiming COVID-19 has been “a chief health harm” to U.S. pro, college and high-school football players. They worry too many Americans falsely believe young athletes are immune from serious COVID-19 harm.
The article references Jamain Stephens Jr., a defensive lineman for Division II California University in Pennsylvania who died from a blood clot in August after being hospitalized with COVID-19. And a string of deaths of high-school coaches in their 40s and hospitalizations of teenage players, some with myocarditis — a swelling of the heart that can be a byproduct of COVID-19.
“These are not minor health issues resulting from COVID-19,” said Bachynski, who previously authored a book on football safety risks. “And I would say the lack of knowledge of long term effects is not a lack of evidence that there aren’t harms.”
And yet, nationwide, including here in King County, parents and athletes clamored for high-school football. A group of Washington high-school athletes, organized by Bellevue-based football trainer Tracy Ford, marched on Olympia demanding Gov. Jay Inslee reinstate fall sports.
Ford later staged an unsanctioned October showcase football camp and game for more than 100 high-school players on a Tacoma field in violation of state COVID-19 protocols. He questioned why 35 other states were playing, accusing Inslee of depriving players of college scholarship opportunities.
But by Thanksgiving weekend, a majority of states playing high-school football also had the nation’s highest per capita COVID-19 rates. Did football contribute? Or, was playing football only a byproduct of already-lax COVID-19 safety attitudes in those states that may have spiked the numbers? It isn’t clear. But 18 of 20 states with the nation’s highest per capita COVID infection rates were those allowing high-school football; 11 of the bottom 15 states for infection rates — including Washington at No. 45 — were not.
Bachynski said such inconsistent state approaches stem from inadequate government leadership across all levels.
“I think sports is maybe just one piece of the bigger problem which is that we have not had clear consistent, straightforward public health communication, or clear consistent policy throughout the pandemic,” she said.
Washington has been relatively more aggressive about business closures, social distancing and mask-wearing, and that’s carried over to sports — with no high-school football, and our college and pro teams playing in empty stadiums.
But it’s still more lenient than parts of California, where the San Francisco 49ers were forced to indefinitely relocate to Arizona when Santa Clara County deemed it unsafe to continue allowing contact sports. After 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan criticized the decision, county executive Jeff Smith fired back: “If leaders want to protect their teams and communities, they should not play anywhere until it is safe.”
There are no similar plans to curtail our state’s pro or college teams. That’s resulted in mixed messaging from state leaders, with Gov. Inslee and public health officials pleading that Washingtonians stay home for Thanksgiving while the Huskies last weekend had a previously-COVID-19 ravaged Utah Utes squad fly in for a last-minute game after the Apple Cup cancellation.
Utah’s state health officials had similarly urged avoiding Thanksgiving travel with public-service announcements stating: “Thanksgiving leftovers won’t taste as good if you’re on a ventilator.”
The Utes — who’d suggested their COVID-19 spread was possibly linked to in-class learning and crowded dormitories — chartered a private Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle. Utah’s men’s basketball team announced an outbreak that same week, but there’s no evidence football players or staffers disobeyed NCAA pandemic protocols by leaving the Westin hotel in Bellevue where they stayed.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks traveled to Philadelphia last weekend, then returned for this Sunday’s home game against the New York Giants, while the Sounders beat visiting FC Dallas last Tuesday and on Monday will host the MLS Western Conference Final.
Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said in an email Thursday the three local teams “are not a focus of additional restrictions” at this time.
“These organizations have very strict testing protocols, in-house medical resources, and detailed league and conferences plans,” Lee said “These are well-vetted and I am told that the Seahawks are currently the only team in the entire NFL who have not had a COVID case.
“We are doing whatever we can to slow the spread of the virus, reduce hospitalizations and avoid deaths. These are not easy decisions nor are they taken lightly or with careful consideration. We follow science and the advice of medical professionals.”
NFL teams are spending a reported $40 million apiece on daily COVID-19 testing and rapid turnaround results. Also, the Seahawks’ lack of positive tests has been at least partly attributed to coach Pete Carroll instituting systems where players socially distance at practices and spend off-field time in a personal “bubble” at home or confined to team hotels.
But the home “bubble” rules are largely honor-based and it’s unclear whether the Seahawks are just getting lucky; NFL teams league wide have been rocked by COVID-19 despite similar spending on testing.
College and MLS teams aren’t spending nearly what the NFL does to contain spread. Caplan, the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel member, said the mixed government messages about travel “just don’t make sense.”
“If you’re not supposed to be traveling for Thanksgiving, then I don’t think you need to be traveling for your sports event. Postpone it, stretch the season out. Do anything you can to minimize the spread.”
Canada playing under different rules
When Canada’s governing university sports body, U Sports, canceled all fall national championships — including football — last summer and winter sports, including hockey, in October. U Sports chief medical officer Taryn Taylor put out a statement that the moves were “to ensure student-athlete health and safety.”
But in the U.S., with COVID-19 infections surpassing 200,000 daily, unpaid student athletes continue to play.
Caplan said that, unlike Canada, our country’s intense football and overall sports culture causes teams to view COVID infections as temporary setbacks rather than potentially life threatening. “I also think the amount of money, advertisers, what’s related to big-time sports here just dwarfs what goes on there.,” he said.
“So, corporate interest drives what’s going on. TV contracts and that sort of thing.”
Canadian university sports rarely draw more than 10,000 spectators, with TV contracts a fraction of what NCAA conferences get.
The Pac-12 initially said it didn’t make sense to play football, given several member schools — including UW — deemed it too risky to even hold in-person classes. That changed once other “Power 5” SEC, ACC and Big-12 conferences began playing games, some in stadiums crowded with fans.
Both the Pac-12 and another holdout, the Big Ten Conference, quickly reversed course — stating they’d rely on newly-available COVID-19 daily rapid antigen testing to prevent outbreaks. Still, as seen by ensuing outbreaks all season, rapid testing has limits and preventing COVID-19 spread depends greatly on follow-up contact-tracing protocols that have varied from school to school.
But with Pac-12 athletic departments each facing tens of millions of dollars in football revenue shortfalls, continuing to play — even without fans — recoups some TV money.
And when teams keep playing, fans watch — either inside stadiums, at watch-parties in bars or private homes. Those gatherings, experts say, almost certainly contribute to coronavirus spread.
Eric Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at WSU, was the lead author of a September study on the risk to university populations of staging college sporting events with fans attending. The study modeled expected fan behavioral patterns — gauging how it impacted on-campus spread of COVID-19 not only through game attendance, but watch-party gatherings in which visitors from outside university populations mixed with students.
It found that outsiders with a high prevalence of COVID-19 mixing heavily with a school’s students could increase infections by up to 822%, even on campuses where the coronavirus was previously contained. Much depends on factors like how many students live on or off-campus, the positioning of dormitories and whether facilities like school gymnasiums and cafeterias remained open.
But Lofgren said the results convinced him there should definitely be no college sporting events with fans in stadiums. And on a moral level: “I felt that we should cancel sports.”
Canada closed its U.S. border last spring and imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine period on nonessential travelers. The Toronto Blue Jays were not exempted, with Canadian immigration and citizenship minister Marco Mendicino issuing a statement that repeated cross-border travel by that team’s players, staff and opponents was too risky for them and the local populace.
The Blue Jays relocated to Buffalo last season. MLS squads Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps played in Connecticut, New Jersey and Portland, respectively, while the Toronto Raptors will play upcoming NBA home games in Tampa Bay.
The exception this fall was the NHL staging a COVID-free Stanley Cup Playoffs in “bubble” cities Edmonton and Toronto.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a University of Toronto epidemiologist hired by the NHL Players’ Association to help design COVID-19 playoff safety protocols, said Canadian government officials didn’t exactly roll over for hockey just because it’s the country’s favorite sport.
“It just seemed that the Canadian perspective was ‘Listen, if you’re going to be in Canada, you can come, but you’ve got to stay here and you’ve got to be in the bubble’,” Bogoch said. “You’re not just going to fly in and out with teams coming in and out.”
That set the bar for future events. This past week, Curling Canada announced several major national and international events will take place in a Calgary “bubble” early next year.
It hasn’t all gone perfectly: A decision by four provinces to allow the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to operate a somewhat regular schedule proved disastrous.
Players quickly became infected, provincial health authorities canceled games in COVID-19 regional “hot spots” and the league suspended play until mid-January while it figures out some type of “bubble” format.
Logistical difficulties will also reportedly delay the NHL’s upcoming season until at least mid-January. The league is expected to attempt regional divisions and possibly short-term bubbles in both countries — including one in which its seven Canadian teams play only each other to avoid cross-border travel.
The NBA had an easier time with U.S.-based governments and plans for teams to play in home arenas with regular travel when the season launches this month. In a somewhat ominous start, 48 out of 546 players arriving at training camp last week tested positive for the coronavirus.
That 9% rate is lower than the 10% national average. But that’s for a nation demonstrably the world’s worst at containing COVID-19 and bound to raise more questions about why sports are continuing.
Muhlenberg College author and assistant professor Bachynski views these stumbling sports efforts as too risky with a vaccine supposedly close. She understands many Americans might view the loss of sports as defeat, or giving up, but said such short-term sacrifices might be the only way to quickly end our nation’s COVID-19 cycle of death and shutdowns.
“I think it’s a sort of unwillingness to concede that the virus, unfortunately is going to have to take precedence over that,’’ she said of sports. “There’s sort of a thought that we can outsmart this virus, or just implement some protocols and find a way to still make it happen. Unfortunately, I think that’s not the reality that we’re currently in.’’
States that played high school tackle football this fall
and where they rank in COVID-19 cases/1 million population
States that didn’t play highlighted in bold*
1. North Dakota (played)
2. South Dakota (played)
3. Iowa (played)
4. Wisconsin (two thirds of schools played)
5. Nebraska (played)
6. Utah (played)
7. Montana (played)
8. Illinois (did not play)
9. Idaho (played)
10. Wyoming (played)
11. Kansas (played)
12. Minnesota (played)
13. Tennessee (played)
14. Rhode Island (did not play)
15. Arkansas (played)
16. Mississippi (played)
17. Louisiana (played)
18. Alabama (played)
19. Missouri (played)
20. Indiana (played)
21. Nevada (did not play)
22. Oklahoma (played)
23. Florida (played)
24. New Mexico (did not play)
25. Arizona (played)
26. Texas (played)
27. Georgia (played)
28. South Carolina (played)
29. Alaska (played)
30. Kentucky (played)
31. Colorado (79% played short season)
32. New Jersey (played)
33. Michigan (played)
34. Delaware (played)
35. New York (did not play)
36. Ohio (played)
37. North Carolina (did not play)
38. Maryland (some played)
39. Massachusetts (did not play)
40. Connecticut (did not play)
41. California (did not play)
42. Pennsylvania (85% played)
43. Virginia (did not play)
44. West Virginia (played)
45. Washington (did not play)
46. Oregon (did not play)
47. New Hampshire (played)
48. Hawaii (did not play)
49. Maine (did not play)
50. Vermont (did not play)
*All data as of Nov. 27
(Compiled by Geoff Baker from USA Today, AP, Worldometer and other news sources)