Dr. Mark Hamilton has a unique vantage point on the return of sports during COVID-19. Hamilton is a medical doctor finishing up his residency at Northwell Health in New York, but less than 10 years ago he was in the majors getting a cup of coffee on a St. Louis Cardinals team that won the World Series in 2011.
When asked whether sports should be happening during a global pandemic, he says it depends.
“I think we could at least try with certain sports. If they have some inherent social distancing,” Hamilton said.
If a season is shut down, or a collegiate athlete doesn’t feel it’s safe to play, things could get dicey with the existence of athletic scholarships. Hamilton says athletes — whether they play or not — should be able to hang on to their scholarships, but he understands why some might nonetheless feel a weight on their shoulders to go out there and get something on game film.
“It’s really complicated because people, athletes, often rely on their scholarships to be able to afford their education,” Hamilton said, noting that he’d finished his own undergrad studies at Tulane on an athletic scholarship.
“It’s complicated to reopen, and we have to make safety paramount, but if we can find a way to keep these student athletes safe, they shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to compete on the field and in the classroom.”
The NCAA unveiled an extended health protocol last week, which now includes mandatory testing for all student athletes upon arriving on campus, with test results being delivered within 72 hours.
Hamilton says he is concerned by that turnaround window on COVID-19 test results. He would like to see the test results back within a day — since an athlete on campus would likely spend that three-day period interacting with other students on campus, possibly exposing them to the virus.
There was also a recommendation by the NCAA for programs to play on the same day of travel, in order to cut down on overnight stays and minimize risk of exposure.
“The reality of the situation is that if players have to fly, airline travel is a relatively significant risk at this point. We aren’t sure if the virus is truly airborne or not but we do see the rate of infection of people indoors is upwards of 20 times higher than people that are outdoors,” Hamilton said.
Eight months in, the biggest unknown with COVID-19 is there just isn’t enough information out there. Based on NPR data, 1 in 5 people will become ill, with the remaining 80 percent possibly asymptomatic, for now. Even for asymptomatic patients, though, the long-term effects of the virus remain unclear.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said last month that researchers are finding that folks who have entered the recovery phase — whether they were gravely ill or not — have still not fully recovered months later.
“We don’t know the extent of full recovery or partial recovery, so there’s a lot we need to learn,” he said. Specifically, for patients under the age of 45 who experience symptoms, doctors are finding that some suffer from an inflammatory response and develop blood clots, placing them in the hospital.
If the blood clots occur in the brain, that results in a stroke. If clots manifest in the lungs, heart, or kidneys, they can lodge themselves into those organs — a potentially fatal complication.
In addition to the blood clots, doctors are monitoring a trend of lower oxygen levels among hospitalized patients. The inflammation in the heart caused by the lower oxygen levels can result in permanent heart damage.
Patients who are young, experiencing what’s deemed as a milder form of the virus, are still in some instances losing senses like their ability to taste and smell. In a European study of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients, 86 percent reported problems with their sense of smell, while a similar percentage had changes in taste perception.
But can we truly trust college athletic departments to do the right thing? Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher praised the decision last month by the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, to reopen stadiums. Fisher told a local radio station he believed the season would be “pretty close to normal.” A&M’s athletic director, Ross Bjork, doubled down on that sentiment a few days later, telling the San Antonio Express-News they would expect at least 50 percent of the stadium full by the time the season rolls around.
“We want as many fans in there as possible,” said Bjork. “That’s what we’re planning for.”
And these statements were said at the beginning of a spiking trajectory of cases in the state of Texas.
Despite the worrisome comments by Texas A&M’s athletic leadership, based on Hamilton’s positive experience at Tulane, he believes college coaching and medical staffers, in general, are capable of keeping players safe. However, Hamilton does commend the UCLA’s football program’s demand for third-party oversight:
“I would want that transparency they are asking for. It’s completely legitimate. There are a lot of questions with this virus. Why do some young people get very sick while others are asymptomatic? There are plenty of healthy people who get this virus that do very poorly.”
On the other side of the coin, Iona head basketball coach Rick Pitino made a plea with the NCAA on Twitter to push back the start to basketball season in an effort to “buy some more time for a vaccine and to get things under control.”
Pitino added, “Although I can’t wait to be back on the sidelines, the health of my players and staff is what’s really important.”
The NCAA hasn’t made a public statement in response to Pitno’s request.
Based on the way things are today, Hamilton says the sports that potentially could go on unimpinged are golf and baseball — contests played outdoors, where physical distancing is possible.
He says if we want sports to come back as soon as possible, everyone has to make an effort to wear a mask in public and physically distance themselves from others.
Hamilton’s biggest fear? A COVID-19 outbreak traced back to a school’s athletic program. In that scenario, he says, things could unfold in a manner similar to the larger political theater surrounding the pandemic.
“The last thing I would want to see in sports or an institution is becoming a target of this blame following an outbreak,” he said, suggesting that teams should look to compete only regionally.
If Hamilton were a collegiate or professional athlete right now, would he be playing? If he were hoping to go pro, and needed more game film or exposure to scouts, he probably would suit up. But if players don’t feel safe, he says, their scholarships shouldn’t be jeopardized.
“It’s kind of a duality here. I played college sports before professionally, and in order to have my professional career I needed to play my collegiate career,” Hamilton said.
“If they aren’t able to play their sport they’re not going to get signed. They’re not going to get scouted. That might limit them from playing a professional career later. Which is clearly unfair.”