So, we’re really doing this. The bubble is formed, the players are inside it, the games are scheduled. The NHL is officially back, or at least it will be in a few days.
Still, people may be feeling ambivalence about the return to play. I know I am, and because I don’t want to be a constant downer here for the next couple months, I’m just going to say this once and then I promise I’ll move on:
Y’all, I dunno if this is a good idea.
The Washington Capitals boarded their plane for Toronto on Sunday afternoon, right around the time the MLB’s Miami Marlins beat the Phillies 11-6 in Philadelphia. We don’t yet know when the next Marlins game will be, as that team now reportedly has at least 18 positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Earlier in July, Major League Soccer announced infections among Dallas’ and Nashville’s teams, scuttling their full return-to-play effort.
But the logistical approaches of the MLS and MLB have taken are much different than the NHL’s. Like the NBA, the NHL has established quarantine zones for players, officials, limited press, and support staff in Toronto and Edmonton.
— Aaron Murphy 🎙 (@MurphOnIce) July 24, 2020
As a risk mitigation effort, the “bubble” plan is superior to the alternative, which involves frequent travel in and out of hot zones like Florida, where recent testing data showed having a twenty percent positive rate. So while the MLB season seems on the verge of collapsing, the NHL looks poised by comparison.
The NHL had some stumbles early on — Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Toronto all had disclosed infections — the final report of pre-bubble testing showed no positive infections. I don’t know if that’s something to congratulate necessarily, but it’s at least good news. And that’s the position I feel compelled to take here: If the NHL is really doing this (and I super-duper don’t think they should), I’m rooting for them. I want to be proved wrong.
The NHL is doing a lot right with their effort. Daily testing is good (and its not the league’s fault that frequent testing is not readily available to anyone who needs it). Regular deep-cleaning is good. Mandatory masks are good. The players and coaches voiced overwhelming positive feedback upon settling in. But there are still problems.
For example, the bubble isn’t truly a bubble. They’re not locked in there like Biodome. The quarantine zones are technically permeable, with support staff like food service workers coming and going, though subject to daily testing. There’s less risk than in a traveling league, but there’s still risk.
And the league has not actually defined a threshold for shutting down in case of an outbreak, so they can play Calvinball with health of their players and workers — much like the Marlins did on Monday. Worse, according to Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts, Gary Bettman claims to have the final say on who will play and will not. From Bettman:
Well, I guess in the final analysis it may be me, but I’m going to defer to the medical people, both from the governmental authorities and our own medical people in conjunction with the Players’ Association. I am not going to be making the medical decisions. I’ll be taking the guidance, but I suppose it’s my authority that determines ultimately who plays in our games and who doesn’t.
Giving management ultimate authority means hoping for benevolence from the same man who still denies concussions cause CTE. And Bettman is just the ugly capstone above a weirdly coercive culture in which players insist they’re in the best shape of their careers and get glazed in praise after playing through catastrophic injury.
But an imperfect plan and a toxic culture only changes the likelihood of the disease spreading within the bubble. There’s a further problem: we don’t actually know what the true impact would be of an outbreak. The age of the players and their fitness levels make them less likely to die from COVID-19, but that doesn’t help support staff like coaches and officials, who skew older and less healthy. And the long-term co-morbidities of COVID-19 are still poorly understood. Early research suggests heart problems and neurological problems can be common among survivors. Much of this research is still being peer-reviewed and expanded upon, but there’s already a reasonable assumption that some people who recover from the disease may suffer a diminished quality of life. That could mean an early end for some athletes’ careers — and perhaps shorter lives for some infected workers. I doubt that this risk has been properly weighed, and that the players’ and workers’ interests have been properly advocated for.
So, yeah, I’m worried. But while I wish everyone were staying home and staying healthy . . . and collecting robust unemployment insurance from competent governments, I acknowledge that we’ve gone a different way. So now I’m just rooting — not just for the Caps — but also for nothing to come of my anxieties. I don’t want to be vindicated here. I really do want some clown on twitter with an egg avatar to send me this story six weeks from now and call me Chicken Little. I’d be okay with that. Really.
So I’ve said my piece, and now I’m going to stuff all this anxiety away in a little compartment. Here is a picture of a cat.
And now all you’ll hear from me from here on out is enthusiasm and hopefulness. Ugh. I hate it. Just drop the puck already.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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