It might not be déjà vu all over again, but it sure does feel close to it.
Last March, sports announced to the world that everything was about to change. The NBA was the first hit, suspending the season on March 11, 2020, after Rudy Gobert became the first of many professional basketball players to test positive for COVID-19. Within two days, Major League Baseball, the NCAA, NHL, and even more leagues followed suit, bringing the sports world to a screeching halt. It would not open back up again until early July, when MLB, NHL, and the NBA brought their players back to begin preparing to restart the season; in those three months, the entire world turned upside down.
I cannot help but think about those turbulent March days as I prepare for a winter break that came upon suddenly as my school decided to close today due to a sizeable uptick in COVID-19 cases. While the baseball world has been subject to a lockout-induced quiet and the MLS engages in the opening days of its offseason, the NFL, NBA, and NHL have exploded into chaos. Thanks to the new Omicron variant, whose mutations allow it to evade the vaccines at a higher rate than the Delta variant, all three professional sports leagues have seen more COVID cases now than they have since the vaccines were first made available to the public.
In case you’ve missed it, here’s a brief summary of what’s been going on:
- More than 125 NFL players have been added to the COVID list since Monday; for reference, from the beginning of the season through November 27th, the league had 110 positive cases.
- Both the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams have been forced to enter the NFL’s “Intensive Protocols,” essentially shutting down practice. The Browns currently have 20 players in COVID protocols (almost half the roster), including both starting quarterback Baker Mayfield and backup Case Keenum.
- The NFL Players Association has been pushing not only to postpone Saturday’s Browns-Raiders matchup, but to put the league on pause for at least a week to get this outbreak under control; at this moment in time, the league continues to press on, irresponsibly so.
- Two NBA games have been cancelled — Tuesday’s Bulls-Pistons and Thursday’s Bulls-Raptors — with more games threatened. At the time of writing, the Sacramento Kings feared an outbreak would cancel tonight’s matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies after point guard De’Aaron Fox tested positive.
- A number of basketball players have entered COVID protocols, including five members of the Los Angeles Lakers and four members of the New York Knicks. The Brooklyn Nets, meanwhile, have barely enough players at the moment to field a gameday lineup, as they have only eight healthy players not in protocols.
- On the hockey side of things, the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers played last night’s game in Quebec without any fans, a stark reminder of just how quickly the clock can turn back to 2020.
- The US Men’s National Hockey Team’s trip to Beijing for the Winter Olympics is also up in the air due to “a lot of things [that needed] to be discussed and hopefully answered,” primarily about COVID safety protocols.
At this point in time, I don’t expect either of the three leagues to shut down completely like they did in 2020. Back then, we did not know exactly what we were dealing with, while now, more than 90 percent of the sports’ athletes have been vaccinated. Instead of stumbling around in the darkness, unsure of what questions needed to be answered in order to keep everybody safe, the leagues have extensive toolkits to draw from, ranging from booster shot mandates to strengthened protocols, designed to allow the season to continue with as little interruption as possible. By no means are we in the same place as we were last March.
That said, this week is a stark reminder that we’re not out of the woods just yet. As much as we hoped that the 2022 season would be a return to normalcy, even assuming that the lockout ends in time for spring training to commence as normal, it’s clear that this is just not realistic. Although I doubt we’ll see the immediate return of the COVID-19 rule changes — such as the seven-inning doubleheader and the ghost runner on second in all extra innings — the pandemic will still have a massive effect on the season. Testing protocols will remain in place. Social distancing will still be required. Masks will continue to be encouraged, particularly in enclosed settings. Vaccine mandates will not be going away anytime soon.
As the lockout drags on, both the league and the MLBPA need to be cognizant of this reality, learn from what is happening in the other professional sports leagues right now, and plan accordingly. Because if they don’t, there’s a good chance that Major League Baseball will face these same issues next summer (if not sooner).