Fans often demand perfection from professional athletes, but for sports leagues looking to return to play, perfection is impossible.
Golf is back. Soon other sports will return too, but COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Last week, golfer Cameron Champ became the second PGA Tour player to test positive for COVID-19 since play resumed two weeks ago. The news sent shockwaves through the golf world, with some talking heads even calling for the tour to shut down once again. While such bombastic headlines may garner clicks, they fail to consider the basic facts and only heighten tensions even further.
Including the developmental Korn Ferry Tour, the PGA Tour has conducted a total of 2,757 COVID-19 tests for golfers and staff. Just seven came back positive, a rate of approximately 0.25%. Compare that to the United States at large, where the total number of confirmed cases is 2.68 million as of June 30, or roughly 0.80% of the total U.S. population. Keep in mind that only a small portion of the U.S. population has been tested, and thus the real infection rate is likely much higher. The PGA Tour, on the other hand, is diligently testing not just all players, but also every volunteer and staff member on the premises. With such low infection rates, golf, and all sports, should consider returning.
I am not trying to minimize the pain and suffering caused by COVID-19. Even if there are only a few COVID-19 cases on the PGA Tour, those cases can cause suffering and even death for players and staffers.
“It’s a low number on a percentage basis, but every number hurts,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said.
All I’m saying is that such a small number of cases is far from a surprise and far from complete failure on behalf of the PGA Tour. I’d go as far as to say that the PGA Tour is handling the virus much better than expected. On Thursday, No. 1-ranked golfer Rory McIlroy told the media some of the case concerns have become overblown.
“You hear one or two positive tests and people are panicking, and I saw a couple of calls to shut the tournament down, which is silly from my point of view,” McIlroy said.
I agree with McIlroy. It would be unrealistic for us to expect there to be zero cases across a sample of so many people.
If the PGA Tour’s return to play has taught us anything, it should be that creating an isolated bubble is far easier in theory than in practice. Even without fans, running a sporting event requires the help of hundreds of staff and volunteers. If a few positive tests evoke this strong a reaction, what might that mean for other sports leagues gearing up to return?
Both the NBA and MLB have laid out plans to return to play by the end of July. Even with the most detailed plans, there seem to be too many variables to juggle. To me, it is not a question of if there will be COVID-19 cases, but rather how many. This week, the NBA began testing its players in the lead-up to a potential restart. Sixteen players tested positive, a whopping 5.3% of the 302 administered tests. While the NBA has a full month to attempt to rectify the situation, it would be naive to believe it can completely control it. If the goal was truly to have zero cases in the NBA, waiting until a vaccine is developed would be the only option.
Put simply, a prompt return to sports all but guarantees at least a handful of athletes, staffers, and volunteers will be infected. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver openly admitted that “no options are risk-free right now,” and said the season would continue even if an All-Star tested positive. The athletes know the situation. By agreeing to play, they are assuming that risk. For players who aren’t willing to do that, there is always the option to not play. Multiple NBA players have already announced their decision to opt out of the league’s restart.
Given this reality, it’s not the role of the media to play God when it comes to decisions of this magnitude. I’m fine with scrutinizing the way sports go about their respective restarts; this type of reporting could potentially change things for the better. But a handful of COVID-19 cases is not cause to call for the outright cancellation of sports. This hyperbolic thinking does more harm than good. Just like the rest of society, the sports world will have to learn to live with the virus and adapt to our new normal.
Jacob Vanderzwaag is a rising junior in the School of Foreign Service. The Audible appears online every other week.