A “bubble” just might be the only way for football to successfully return in the United States. That’s not just me, someone who desperately wants there to be a football season, saying it. That’s Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“Unless players are essentially in a bubble -- insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day -- it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci told CNN in June.
Since then, the NFL and NFLPA hammered out a plan for training camp to start on time that does not involve players being in a “bubble,” like the ones created by the NBA, NHL and MLS. Major League Baseball went a different route, testing players every other day and urging personal responsibility but having teams travel from city to city as they otherwise normally would.
It’s taken all of four days for baseball’s plan to show itself as massively flawed.
The Miami Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak should raise serious questions about the NFL’s ability to play a bubble-less season in 2020. If it can happen in a baseball clubhouse, with a roster of 30, it can happen in an NFL locker room with a training camp roster of 80 and a regular season roster of 53 (plus 16 practice squad players).
Just four days – four days! – into baseball’s season, games are already being canceled. Players are contracting the novel coronavirus at a rate not seen inside those bubbles. Just hours before the first pitch of the season last week, Washington Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19.
We, as a country, have not contained COVID-19, as European nations that’ve re-started (and finished) their top soccer leagues have. Only one player is known to have missed a game in the German Bundesliga due to the novel coronavirus; that player self-isolated after his daughter tested positive, though he wound up testing negative. The English Premier League concluded its season over the weekend with 20 total positive tests from players and staff.
The United States is not ready for bubble-less sports to return. So why is the NFL trying?
Creating a bubble for football would be incredibly difficult. You’re talking about over 100 players, coaches and support staff from each team needing to be isolated from everyone but each other for five or six months. It’s not realistic to have one central location with 3,500 people. But it’s also not realistic to expect everything will be fine with the NFL and NFLPA’s plan for practicing and playing in a pandemic.
So the NFL needs to pay attention to the burgeoning calamity in baseball. The Cubs, today, are traveling to a COVID-19 hotspot in Cincinnati – which, amid all the Marlins fervor, also had three players (Matt Davidson, Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel) fall ill over the weekend. Monday’s canceled Marlins-Orioles and Yankees-Phillies games, unfortunately, likely will not be the last.
The NFL has a month and a half before its regular season starts. It needs to learn, and learn quickly, from whatever mistakes baseball has made, and still is making. But maybe the sport should’ve given more credence to what Dr. Fauci said in June.
Because until the United States actually gets COVID-19 under control, the only way to play team sports safely just might be in a bubble.