What has COVID taught us about ourselves in the past year?

On the anniversary of sports shutting down due to COVID-19, what have we learned about sports, the virus, and ourselves?

What has COVID taught us about ourselves in the past year?
Illustration: (AP)

It’s been a year since NBA player Rudy Gobert smeared his hands on reporters’ microphones at a press conference and then tested positive for the coronavirus. A year of lockdowns and masking and handwashing and flouting mask-wearing protocols.

A year of sports cancellations and postponements — Wimbledon, the Olympics, the NCAA basketball tournaments, the start of the baseball season — due to a new virus that raged unchecked through the U.S.

In many ways, American athletes have been the guinea pigs when it comes to this pandemic. Remember when then-President Donald Trump was comparing this to a flu (we found out later he knew it was much, much worse), as though that should justify a lack of preventive measures in the case of this virus? That harmlessness was a sentiment echoed by coaches like Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy last April.

“In my opinion, if we have to bring our players back, test them,” said Gundy. “They’re all in good shape. They’re all 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22-year olds. They’re healthy. A lot of them can fight it off with their natural body, the antibodies, and the build that they have.”

Muscles can fight COVID! Alas, football is not a science, but geniuses like Gundy, whose paychecks were dependent on the show going on, had a lot of power when it came to getting athletes back in the gym.

There are 6,629 cases of coronavirus associated with college sports according to the New York Times coronavirus tracker. And whether they contracted the virus in the locker room or elsewhere, they aren’t all fine. Justin Foster just ended his career at Clemson citing the effects of COVID. HBO’s Real Sports did this piece on college runner Natalie Hakala, who went from competing in track to using a wheelchair with long-term COVID. There is still research into what degree myocarditis impacts athletes. Former Ironman competitor Tamsin Lewis is still suffering effects from covid a year later. WNBA player Asia Durr’s basketball career is in jeopardy after getting the disease.

These are just a few of those stories.

Who knows how many careers are going to be shortened, or will end without fanfare because so many sports played through outbreaks. Colleges aren’t putting out press releases when an athlete continues to suffer. A lack of contact tracing means we may never know how many fans contracted the virus at a game, or at a bar or party to watch a game. There are some indications that Tuscaloosa’s rates went up due to college football celebrations, and that youth tournaments led to outbreaks. But where was that Super Bowl surge? Thankfully, it never emerged. USF Health virologist Dr. Michael Teng said that was likely because the event and parties were held outdoors.

You wouldn’t know much about much of the bad news from watching most sports coverage on television. Sports broadcasters have a financial interest in the games being played and making sure the spigot of advertising dollars keep flowing. So instead we heard infinite versions of WHAT A GREAT JOB sports were doing mitigating the virus.

But we’ve learned quite a bit from the way sports have operated in the last year, and a lot of it isn’t pretty.

Economic interests come first

It’s not about the games. It’s not about the athletes wanting to play. It’s about the money. Whether it was the Pac-12 or the Big Ten flip-flopping from foregoing the season to getting back on the field, so many decisions about whether or not to play were based on money. The N.Y. Post reported the Big Ten could have lost $1 billion in revenue if it hadn’t played. Wimbledon, which had a pandemic clause in its insurance policy, was able to cancel the tournament without financial pain, but that was a rare exception. ESPN reported last May that one analysis it commissioned had the industry losing $12 billion if sports ceased.

Politics matter

President Donald Trump urged pro sports leagues to get back on the field in a conference call in April. It seems bizarre that this would have been the priority at a time when other nations focused on mitigation and public health messaging. Those leagues capitulated. He also dialed up the Big Ten commissioner to lean on him to reverse the decision not to play. Which they did not long after. There was a political motivation to getting schools to play, particularly in the many battleground states throughout the Midwest (see Big Ten). A “win” opportunity for Trump, particularly with November looming. More people have died from the coronavirus in the U.S. — over 540,000 — than in any other country. By tens of thousands.

Athletes do get sick

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez was one of the first players to defy the “they’ll be fine” narrative when he developed post-covid myocarditis and stopped pitching for the 2020 season. Thankfully, he’s back this season. Since then many athletes have had to opt out of seasons or take time out to recover.

Sports need unions

Look no farther than the transmission that occurred on pro teams versus college teams. When players have a union, they can argue for protections and compensation for the risks taken to play. They can also opt out of a season. When players make an informed decision about playing, rather than being functionally coerced by the disingenuous structure of an “amateur” sport, athletes are better protected.

Bubbles work

The NBA, WNBA, and NWSL developed competitive bubbles with rigorous testing that really did prevent spread for the most part. It could have been a national model, had testing been available widely and cheaply enough.

The NCAA football model is trash

This is a column unto itself, but essentially the financial interests compelled college athletes to play, while many coaches didn’t take the risks seriously, and hundreds of unpaid players contracted the virus. But coaches and schools got paid, and broadcasters made bank.

Youth sports will follow the pros and colleges

If MLB is going to play through outbreaks, and college coaches use “the kids want to play” as justification for getting college players back on closed campuses, then you can be very sure the local coach making money off youth league fees is going to want to get the kids back, too. When that is outdoors and done conscientiously, it can work. But not always, as Phoenix found in December when relaxed gathering guidelines led to youth tournaments and subsequent outbreaks.

Ratings for live sports tanked

Across the board with men’s sports, ratings were way down this year. The WNBA and NWSL were the exceptions, likely because they had been under-broadcast in the past. Even the bulletproof NFL, which played a traditional schedule, saw a sizable dip all the way through the Super Bowl. Fans just weren’t as interested in sports this year, and a Marist Poll showed, the decline wasn’t just a measurement error, but that fans reported their own viewing habits were changing. Turns out, sports might have needed fans more than fans needed sports in 2020.

Cooperating with research

The NFL, MLB, NHL, WNBA, NBA, and MLS tested 789 athletes for post-covid myocarditis and found just .6 percent had the condition. Although this is useful information for leagues at all levels, it also shows the extent to which pro athletes were exposed to the virus.

Sports can help

Look at all the sports stadiums being used as mass vaccination sites! Yankee Stadium is one and is for Bronx residents only – one of New York City’s many diverse communities and the kind that is often underserved in health outreach. Some leagues, like the NBA, were doing a solid job modeling mask use. This was also an opportunity that was lost when leagues didn’t jump in with public health messaging early.

Team transmission and national impact

The problem with a novel virus that affects different people in different ways is that so much is unknown. We have no idea when or if long-term covid resolves in everyone. Years from now we may know more about what impact the decisions to have so many sports continue had on nationwide transmission numbers. Sports contributed to transmission, but the uncomfortable question remains: To what extent?