In the sprint to reopen, the sport encounters pandemic obstacles

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NYT > Sports

Fans are returning to the stadiums in droves. Games and tournaments take place regularly. Sports officials are confident that the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

But no playing field, no court, no ring or fairway is safe from the disturbances of the coronavirus, in contrast to the spirit of reopening that prevails in many places.

The final reminder came on Wednesday when the Phoenix Suns basketball team announced that their transcendent point guard, Chris Paul, could be banned from the Western Conference finals due to the NBA’s coronavirus protocols.

The circumstances of Paul’s situation were not immediately clear – he might have tested positive or just been in close contact with someone who had done so. It was also not clear whether Paul was vaccinated. What was immediately clear, however, is that if he can’t play in his team’s next games, it jeopardizes the Sun’s chances of returning to their first NBA final since 1993.

Perhaps there is no problem that sport must overcome as immediately as the reluctance of some top athletes to accept the vaccine.

“This is a personal question,” the Jets’ rookie quarterback Zach Wilson told reporters on Wednesday when asked if he had been vaccinated. LeBron James refused to say if he was vaccinated, calling it a “family decision”. Few athletes have said outright that they won’t get vaccinated or explained why they won’t, despite the fact that Montez Sweat, the Washington Football team’s defensive end, gave the skeptics a voice last week, even after the team agreed talked to an immunologist with the players.

“I’m not a fan of this,” said Sweat. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I have more facts and such. I’m not a fan of it at all. I haven’t caught Covid yet, so I don’t see myself treating Covid until I actually get Covid. “

NFL players who are not vaccinated will face severe restrictions for the next football season. The league has mandated vaccinations for coaches and other key team personnel, but cannot do this for players. Still, teams can make the compromise very clear.

“If you get vaccinated, you can go back to the 2019 rules,” said Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman. “If you don’t, you must follow the 2020 protocols,” a rigorous program of testing, masking, and social distancing.

In individual sports, it is almost entirely up to each athlete whether they should be vaccinated.

Teófimo López, a lightweight boxing champion, was due to defend his title against George Kambosos Jr. in a highly anticipated pay-per-view match this weekend in Miami. But the fight was postponed to August after López tested positive for the coronavirus this week. According to his promoter, Bob Arum, López wasn’t vaccinated – although the fighter said last year that he believed he was at risk of serious illness if he contracted the virus because of asthma.

“There was no reason he didn’t get vaccinated before training,” Arum told Boxing Scene. “No reason. And if he’d been vaccinated, he wouldn’t have lost his payday. So I’m sorry for him, but the fight will happen.”

Sometimes the virus leads to big events. At other times, it changes sports results live, in front of hundreds of thousands of fans watching on TV.

On June 5, Dublin, Ohio golfer Jon Rahm rolled into the final round of the Memorial Tournament by a six-stroke lead when officials told him he had tested positive and ordered him to withdraw.

Not only did he forfeit the opportunity to take home the check for first place for $ 1.7 million, but also the valuable training time in quarantine before the US Open, which began on Thursday.

Rahm, 26, said he had been vaccinated but only recently before testing positive. He had a message for his colleagues who were slow to vaccinate. “We live in a free country, so do what you want,” said Rahm. “I can tell you from experience that if something happens you will have to live with the consequences for golf.”

Rahm’s withdrawal caused an uproar among bettors, and Paul’s insecurity sparked wild swings in the NBA betting markets on Wednesday. “It was a very difficult year with cancellations, people are wondering who is in and who is not,” said Nick Bogdanovich, commercial director of sports betting company William Hill in the US. “It’s definitely dead action.”

In team sports, United States-based leagues have largely come to the conclusion that they cannot require their athletes to be vaccinated.

Instead, leagues have tried to lure players into taking the vaccine by dangling the carrot of relaxed restrictions – like wearing masks in team facilities or being allowed to visit friends and family on the go – when teams hit certain thresholds for vaccinated players and staff .

Despite initial opposition from many players, the percentage of vaccinated players and staff in Major League Baseball has slowly increased. Last Friday, 22 of the 30 clubs reached the 85 percent threshold of certain categories of players and staff being vaccinated to ease some restrictions. Eight teams remain and it is clear that many players remain skeptical.

While vaccines give sport the best chance at minimizing disruption, due to the presence of virus variants and breakthrough infections, they won’t prevent all of them.

The Yankees were one of the first baseball teams to cross the vaccine threshold but had to deal with an outbreak last month. Nine people linked to the Yankees, including one player, Shortstop Gleyber Torres, tested positive despite being fully vaccinated, according to the team.

In countries where vaccines are not yet widely used, there are concerns about giving athletes priority over other people and whether sporting events should continue at full speed amid outbreaks.

As the pandemic worsened in Argentina in May, the Copa America men’s soccer championship for South American countries was moved to Brazil less than two weeks before the first game. At least eight players and four members of the Venezuelan team’s delegation tested positive for the corona virus before the tournament began.

Euro 2020, which will be held in venues across Europe, has done better, but has not remained unscathed. Scheduled matches have been postponed from locations in Spain, Russia and Ireland, either because of virus concerns or because local authorities have denied fans access to the stadiums.

As more people get vaccinated, especially in places struggling to get enough vaccines, some of these threats to the natural functioning of sport will decrease. However, experts warn that we will most likely live with this virus and its effects for a long time.

“It’s a combination of things, but hopefully we can address these things,” said Dana Hawkinson, the medical director of infection prevention for the University of Kansas Health System. “We know that these viruses generally find a way to assert themselves in the community, regardless of the community.”

That means that the sports world, like the world in general, must learn to live with them.

In a conference call with reporters last week, DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL players’ union, said the union can only inform its members about the benefits of vaccination, but not oblige them to do so.

“We are a microcosm of our country,” explains Smith, explaining why football players are not vaccinated. “There are big differences in our country where some people are vaccinated and others are not. The only thing we can do is talk to our players. “

Ken Belson, Joe Drape and James Wagner contributed to the coverage.

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