The NFL and NBA Must Chart a New Path Through Omicron Panic

What the major professional sports leagues decide to do in the next few days will play a significant role in how Americans view the next stage of the pandemic.


Hours before they were scheduled to take the field on Monday night against the team with the best record in the National Football League (NFL), five players on the Los Angeles Rams tested positive for COVID-19. Among them: star cornerback Jalen Ramsey and starting tight end Tyler Higbee. Under the NFL's pandemic rules, all five would not be allowed to play in the crucial game.

"My initial reaction was, 'You got to be shitting me,'" Rams head coach Sean McVay said later that night, shortly after his team pulled off an impressive 30-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals despite scrambling to plug backups into key roles.

The situation the Rams faced on Monday was an extreme example of what teams across professional sports have been dealing with since leagues restarted play following a months-long pause at the start of the pandemic. Most players and coaches are vaccinated; testing is mandatory and regular, and players who test positive must be isolated for a period of time, or until they test negative, even if they show no symptoms (the specific timeframes vary from league to league). Sometimes that means taking the field or court or rink without a key player and with little advance notice.

By Thursday, however, the Rams situation was no longer an outlier. The NFL has seen dozens of positive tests this week—by far the largest total since the start of the pandemic. The Washington Football Team has 15 players sidelined. The Cleveland Browns have at least 13 out. The Rams' outbreak is now up to 18 players and counting. In other leagues, similar surges in case counts are happening. The National Hockey League (NHL) has already postponed several Calgary Flames games after more than 20 positive tests among players and staff. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is facing a similar mess across multiple teams:

For many Americans, the moment COVID got real was the night of March 11, 2020. That was when the NBA abruptly canceled a single game and then, just hours later, suspended its season after a positive test from Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert. This week, it seems like sports are once again serving as a proxy for a culture-wide reckoning with a frustrating and inevitable seasonal surge of COVID cases. What the major professional leagues decide to do in the next few days will play a significant role in how Americans view the next stage of the pandemic.

The NFL, NBA, and NHL are in some ways victims of their own success. Lucrative television contracts meant all three were highly motivated to get back to playing games during the first year of COVID, even if that meant playing in front of empty stadiums for a bit. To achieve that, they adopted testing and isolation protocols meant to protect players and coaches as best as possible—though lockdowns, as we've all learned, do not come without painful tradeoffs. When vaccines became available, the leagues and their players' unions pushed for widespread adoption. The NHL, for example, claims to have just four unvaccinated players across the whole league. The NFL has a league-wide vaccination rate of 94.6 percent, significantly better than any U.S. state.

Despite vaccination rates that are the envy of just about every corporation or community in America, the major professional sports leagues are still subjecting players to routine testing. In fact, both the NBA and NFL recently imposed heightened testing protocols—more tests, more frequently. Unsurprisingly, more positive tests have been found. Most of the NFL players who landed on COVID lists this week are reportedly asymptomatic.

More testing is, of course, helpful in containing a pandemic. But it also helps to create a perception that the current surge in cases is worse than it might actually be. If it is true that the Omicron variant is more transmissible but less virulent than previous iterations of COVID, then everyone must once again rethink their paradigms about how to respond to the increasingly endemic disease.

As they did in March 2020, America's professional sports leagues have an opportunity (whether they want it or not) to lead on this issue. It might be time for the leagues to recognize that vaccinated, healthy athletes are not at risk of serious negative health outcomes from a positive COVID test, and to adjust protocols accordingly.

"The NBA actually has an opportunity here to end the precautionary moment, or at least signal its ebb," writes NBA beat reporter and podcaster Ethan Strauss. "If commissioner Adam Silver steps forward and announces that his league is ending test protocols and treating this admittedly terrible disease in much the same way we deal with some other respiratory illnesses, that's a potential cultural shift."

Athletes play through other illnesses all the time. One of Michael Jordan's legendary performances in the 1997 NBA Finals was delivered while he was suffering through the flu.

Serious cases of COVID will still occur and players will have to take precautions when outbreaks hit their locker rooms. There will still need to be league-wide protocols to ensure competitive fairness, and teams will have to find ways to comply with local, state, and national public health guidelines—something that becomes especially tricky when it comes to traveling to and from games in different states (and, in some cases, to and from other countries).

"The basic plan," Strauss suggests, would be to test players and team officials only if they're showing symptoms—and then sit players who test positive. "The message could be simple: Look, we can't functionally operate like it's 2020; now that the disease is endemic, and vaccines are widely available, we must move into 2022."

The alternative is not pretty. High numbers of positive tests threaten to force cascading cancellations of games, which is what the NHL's Flames are already dealing with. Before this season kicked off, the NFL said it would not postpone games for COVID-related reasons. Teams would have to play no matter how badly the pandemic may have gutted their rosters, or forfeit the contest. That's admirable resolve, but if widespread outbreaks turn the league's playoff race into farcical showdowns between third-stringers, the NFL may want to rethink things.

Some rethinking of existing protocols is already happening. The NFL announced this week that it would mandate booster shots for team employees and coaches by December 27—the league can't mandate shots for players without consent from the players' union. More shots in arms can only be helpful, but boosting an already widely vaccinated population also makes the tension with the league's isolate-if-you-have-a-positive-test policy more obvious.

The question that sports leagues—and, quite frankly, all of the rest of us—have to grapple with now is: How should vaccinated people react to a positive test? Most of us are long past the lock-yourself-in-the-basement phase. Vulnerable populations—the immunocompromised, elderly, and those who cannot get vaccinated—continue to need protecting, but elite athletes do not fall into that category. Those who choose to not get vaccinated should not get special accommodations.

Let's not relive March 2020. Nearly two years into the pandemic, it's increasingly obvious that we will never fully escape COVID-19. This is the inevitable next step of dealing with COVID as an endemic disease. It's a step the major professional sports leagues will have to take sooner or later—and the sooner, the better.