No Mask, No Seat

As the pandemic progresses, major sports leagues are adjusting their safety policies to keep athletes healthy and reintroduce fans into stadiums.

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By Yaqi Zeng

Since the gradual return of sports in May, sports leagues have taken different approaches to playing during the pandemic. The NBA finished its playoffs in late July in the Orlando Walt Disney World bubble. The MLB restarted its shortened 60-game season in late July, with players wearing masks in fanless stadiums. After canceling its preseason, the NFL began its season in September, which has been running somewhat smoothly with several COVID-19 precautions. Soccer leagues and tournaments have continued their seasons with altered formats and have had minimal cancellations. All leagues are continuously adjusting their policies, from isolating players to mandating that all personnel wear masks, in order to carry on play without having to shut down mid-season due to an increase in COVID-19 cases. Now, sports leagues face the challenge of figuring out how to ensure players are healthy and adhering to mask mandates as well as devising new measures to safely allow fans to attend games.

There have recently been numerous cases of carelessness regarding COVID-19 safety protocols within professional sports. Such incidents beg the question: how should leagues handle players and coaches who do not follow pandemic guidelines?

In Game 6 of the 2020 MLB World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers faced the Tampa Bay Rays for the championship title. During the eighth inning, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was pulled off the diamond after he tested positive for COVID-19. As soon as the Dodgers defeated the Rays to win the World Series, Turner returned to the field to celebrate. He embraced his teammates, held the trophy, and passed it around all without his mask on. It’s understandable that Turner would want to celebrate with teammates after their win in the World Series for the first time in 32 years. However, his actions not only marred the championship team’s celebration, but also reflected badly on the league as a whole and sent a terrible message to fans around the world.

The NFL began its season this year with few game postponements. However, there have been various situations in which players and coaches have not worn masks in public. Several Las Vegas Raiders players were seen maskless at a charity event, New York Giants players were shown without masks in a public bar, and multiple coaches were not wearing masks on the sidelines during games. NFL players must be more cautious with how they handle themselves outdoors; they should consistently wear face coverings and practice social distancing to avoid punishment by the league and stay healthy.

Leagues like the MLB and NFL must decide how to deal with coaches and players who consistently violate COVID-19 health restrictions. Over 40 games were postponed due to the virus this MLB season, yet Turner still celebrated on the field with his team without safety precautions. The MLB issued a statement on their website regarding Turner’s irresponsible decision, ultimately deciding not to punish him or the Dodgers. The NFL, on the other hand, has stepped up its punishments for safety guideline violations. The NFL released a memo on its website stating that NFL officials are now authorized to penalize teams for unsportsmanlike conduct if coaches or personnel on the sideline approach them without a face covering. In fact, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton were both fined a hefty $100,000 for not wearing masks on the sidelines of a late September game.

In addition to implementing preventive measures, sports organizations have also taken cautious steps to bring fans back into stadiums. Some NFL teams have allowed a limited capacity of fans, usually 20 percent, to attend home games. These lucky fans must wear masks and sit in socially distanced pods to watch the game. The league is continuing its plans for Super Bowl LV as well, potentially hosting in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Raymond Jones Stadium at 20 percent capacity.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver allowed players to invite their family members and close friends to the NBA bubble and displayed virtual fans on a 17-foot tall LED screen for the playoffs. The MLB, however, allowed about 11,500 fans to watch the NLCS and World Series games at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Soccer has been behind other sports in its efforts to reintroduce fans to stadiums, but leagues like the Premier League and Bundesliga are hoping to have in-person spectators by next year.

If leagues want to keep playing through the pandemic, they will need to adjust their safety protocols accordingly. Infected players should not be celebrating on the field with their team no matter the circumstances, and coaches and players alike are expected to set a good example for fans by wearing their face coverings on the sidelines. It’s better to have no fans in the stands than to have no sports to watch, so leagues need to take their policies seriously. Sports organizations have come far during the pandemic, but without the enforcement of important safety rules, leagues could shut down again within weeks.