Will American sports still be happening in January?

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

There won’t be a season-long shutdown like there was last year, obviously. But if it’s true that Omicron is about to infect a meaningful percentage of the U.S. population, it’s destined to infect a meaningful share of pro athletes. Maybe a greater share, since players on a team are forced to be around each other in close quarters every day. An ultra-transmissible virus will spread like lightning across the roster, rendering most of the squad temporarily ineligible in short order.

It’s already happening. Last night came news that no less than 75 NFL players tested positive over two days this week, the highest total since the pandemic began. Today the number is 90 and counting, with Baker Mayfield among the latest casualties. And it’s not just the NFL. In the NBA, so many members of the Chicago Bulls have been infected that the team has had to cancel games. The same happened to the Calgary Flames in the NHL. The Cleveland Browns might not be able to field a team against the Raiders on Saturday.

And if they can, they’ll need to use second- or third-stringers in a game with major playoff implications.

That’s apt to be a common occurrence as Omicron spreads. A team will be besieged for a week, its games will be canceled, everyone will eventually shake off the infection, and then they’ll come back online after an isolation period. No need to cancel the season because of that. But the chronic disruptions will force leagues to get creative on how to reschedule games, a particular problem for pro and college football as the playoffs approach. Do we think enough players from Alabama, Michigan, Georgia, and Cincinnati will be COVID-free after weeks of practice together, while Omicron is spreading like crazy everywhere, that the college football playoffs will come off without a hitch on New Year’s Eve?

This wasn’t supposed to happen in the age of vaccines. All pro and college sports league rosters are close to universally vaccinated precisely because the players wanted to avoid disruptions to the season if someone on the team got infected. Then an immune-evasive variant emerged, thwarting that strategy. I wrote this morning that we’re by no means “back to square one” because of Omicron but there are elements of the new outbreak that are reminiscent of square one. Having the NBA and other leagues canceling games due to COVID is one of them.

“Most of us consider it a matter of when, not if,” a Western Conference general manager said of the Omicron variant spreading through the NBA…

As this surge continues, with 26 players remaining in health and safety protocols, general managers and team health officials across the league describe a sense of resignation and uncertainty as to what could slow the rising number of players in protocols…

“Expected but worrisome numbers,” said a second Eastern Conference general manager…

“If restrictions come back, it would be hard to sell that to everybody especially since the vaccine rate is so high in the league,” said one veteran Western Conference front office executive…

“We’ve got a lot of guys sitting at home with no symptoms,” Bulls head coach Billy Donovan told reporters Saturday.

What to do?

To try to slow the spread with minimal disruption, the NBA and NFL have each required boosters this month. Beyond that, there’s a debate over whether the leagues should impose new restrictions aimed at minimizing transmission or get rid of existing restrictions on the theory that there’s no avoiding Omicron so they might as well play through it. Some have suggested reinstating a “bubble” format for the playoffs like the one the NBA used last year when it had all playoff teams quarantine together at a resort in Florida with all games played at the same arena there. How does the NFL pull that off, though, with the playoffs weeks away and huge rosters on each team? By the time they figure out the logistics, Omicron might already have come and gone. It’s that fast.

Others say it’s time to accept that infection is inevitable and forget trying to limit the spread. Yahoo Sports asked one epidemiologist why the leagues are focused on infection instead of on symptoms. If a player has a mild or asymptomatic case and wants to play, shouldn’t he be allowed to? Why bother to test anyone at this point? The epidemiologist’s reply: “It’s a really, really good question, and one I’ve struggled with myself. When do we stop?”

If you let them play while sick, though, then you’re forcing their opponents to tolerate the risk of infection. Most players probably will do so, but maybe not all. If someone objects, what’s the answer? Asking the objector to sit out because he doesn’t want to risk catching COVID might mean that he and his team are penalized because guys on the other side weren’t as diligent about taking precautions. And of course, players who get infected will carry the virus back home with them. We’re not just asking them to assume a risk to themselves by competing against infected players, we’re asking them to assume a risk on behalf of friends and family to whom they might potentially pass the virus on.

Should leagues maybe postpone all games temporarily by a month or two to give Omicron time to pass? That’ll be hard to justify to the public given the reports of how mild the symptoms are, with no sense of whether the outlook will have improved by the time games are supposed to resume. Relatedly, should teams continue to allow full fan capacity at games? Other variants didn’t spread much, if at all, outdoors but Omicron may be transmissible enough that people in close quarters outdoors — like, say, seated next to each other in a stadium — can spread it. Some European soccer leagues have already begun limiting attendance.

Lots of questions, few answers. The only certainty, as always in America’s pandemic, is that it’ll be a mess and everyone will be dissatisfied no matter what course of action prevails.