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The NFL got through Week 1 … now what?



There really can be no debate: The NFL has aced its initial efforts to practice and play amid the coronavirus pandemic. Since training camp practices began in mid-August, only seven players have produced positive test results. There have been no team outbreaks, and the only scare was caused by a contaminated private lab in New Jersey.

The success prompts two natural questions. First, are there any remaining obstacles to playing a full 2020 season, as league officials have said for months they plan to do? And second, can the protocols be loosened in any way while maintaining the current results?

The answer to the latter seems obvious. There is a strong internal push to get fans in more stadiums, wherever local and state regulations allow it. Ticket revenue is one motivation, of course, but fans would also enliven the otherwise awkward and sterile game atmosphere in empty stadiums. Commissioner Roger Goodell did not hide this ambition during a media call earlier this month.

“I believe,” Goodell said, “that we will be having a lot of teams that start with no fans at the beginning of the season, and [then] evolve to fans.”

Three teams hosted fans last weekend, in reduced capacities — Kansas City, Jacksonville and Denver — and four more will do so in Week 2. Goodell pledged to take a “cautious approach” and to cooperate with public health officials on all safety measures. To be sure, with the first 20 feet of seats in every stadium tarped off, players and coaches assuredly will maintain a safe distance from fans.

Regardless, some epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists said there is no way to eliminate the risk of bringing together thousands of people in a football stadium, ensuring there is a chance — however slight — that an NFL game could trigger community outbreak. Thursday, the Kansas City Chiefs announced that one guest at their Sept. 10 opener has since tested positive for COVID-19.

“Sports leagues like to talk about this in a binary way,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “It’s safe, or it’s not safe. The truth is that everything should be viewed over the risk continuum. More people equals more risk. And it still hasn’t been explained what is the benefit supposed to be. There’s money for the teams. There’s maybe a little bit of mental benefit for the people who get to go to the games. But I don’t think that outweighs even a minor threat to the rest of the community.

“I’m not telling people they can’t have football. I’m not telling them they can’t watch it at home. I’m saying, please just don’t go to the stadium. I don’t think, with all the sacrifices that so many other people are making, that’s an unreasonable request.”

Let’s take a closer look at both of our initial questions, utilizing the expertise of an epidemiologist, an infectious disease expert and an ethicist.

Fans in the stadium

In June, researchers at West Virginia University found a link between seasonal flu deaths and the presence of professional sports in United States cities — and their oft-packed stadiums — from 1962 to 2016. Because the flu spreads in similar ways to COVID-19, one of the authors of the paper said: “Opening pro sports games to fans is probably a terrible idea, in terms of public health.”

Three months later, more is known about limiting COVID-19 transmission. NFL teams are cutting capacity by 80% or more. The Chiefs, for instance, announced attendance of 15,895 at Arrowhead Stadium for their opener, about 20% of capacity. Others are planning for similar restrictions. They also are implementing measures that include mandatory face coverings, symptom checks, dedicated entrances and separated “pods” in the stands.

Those policies might reduce the chance of spread, but they won’t eliminate it. Contact tracing in Kansas City forced 10 people into quarantine who came into close contact with the individual who tested positive. It could take up to three weeks to know whether the disease spread among them or to anyone else associated with the game. And while teams can ensure that fans enter their assigned gate and are wearing masks at that point, they will have less control over enforcement of masking and physical distancing throughout a three-hour game.

“It has been documented in scientific literature that certain activities such as singing or yelling could lead to aerosolization of the virus,” said Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “[That allows] the virus to stay suspended in the air and travel further, and that could facilitate super-spreader events. These activities, even at reduced stadium volume, could lead to outbreaks. The invitation of fans into football games that already involve large groups of players who are in close contact for hours is extremely risky. There is otherwise no data to support a certain number of fans that would be safe, and this should be heavily considered before allowing fans into a stadium during an uncontrolled pandemic.”

The NFL has a bigger obligation than simply to comply with local regulations, said Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

“When you make a decision like this, it’s not just about the players and the coaches and the teams and the fans,” Heider said. “It’s every person those people come into contact with. That’s where it gets much more difficult. As ethicists, we would ask, ‘What is the good here? If I’m trying to maximize good and minimize harm, what’s the benefit of opening the stadiums up? And is that benefit worth a human life? More than one human life? Or a resurgence in the virus in the community?'”

The Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars, who hosted 14,100 fans in their Week 1 opener, both play in outdoor stadiums. In Week 2, two teams with hybrid facilities — the Dallas Cowboys‘ AT&T Stadium and the Indianapolis Colts‘ Lucas Oil Stadium — will enter the fray. Both stadiums have retractable roofs and sides. The Cowboys haven’t confirmed how many fans they’ll admit, but the Colts have capped their attendance at 2,500. Binney called indoor stadiums “far more dangerous for transmission of COVID-19,” even if the roof and/or sides are open.

Ultimately, Heider said, teams have a “social responsibility” to their community even if it conflicts with what some fans might want.

“It’s a tough decision,” Heider said. “You hope each NFL team is really sitting down and having a serious discussion and analysis of what the ethical implications are, and what the long-term implications are, and if it’s worth it to have X number of fans in the stands.”

Complacency and community load

Binney was pessimistic about the NFL’s pandemic approach when training camp began. The league had decided against the kind of “bubble” environment employed to great success by the NBA, WNBA, NHL and professional soccer. The NFL’s protocols were closer to those of Major League Baseball, which suffered through a series of team outbreaks early in its return.

NFL players, coaches and staff would be subject to extensive masking and social distancing requirements while at the team facility. But as with those in baseball, they would be exposed to communities that in some cases were hosting raging virus spikes. Four summer hot spots — Florida, California, Texas and Arizona — are home to nine of the NFL’s 32 teams.

This week, Binney admitted he is “stunned” at how well the league has fared.

“And I’m happy to be stunned,” he said. “It has exceeded all of my expectations and, I think, many people’s expectations. What we have seen is that these protocols can work for a period of several weeks when people are very vigilant. I have no reason to believe that the protocols are going to start to fail, but it’s important to make the point that they’re constantly in a very fragile situation, and constant vigilance is required.”

Indeed, complacency might represent the NFL’s biggest obstacle to continuing its season unabated. To this point, it’s clear that NFL personnel are largely staying away from the kind of risky behavior that can increase the chances of infection. Daily testing and digital contact tracing, both cornerstones of the league’s protocol, can help minimize the spread of a single infection, but those measures can get overwhelmed if a large number of people are infected simultaneously.

“An outbreak really can happen at any time,” Binney said. “We’ve seen it in college football over and over and over again. If you don’t follow the protocols and you’re not careful, you can do something that would cause the virus to spread through the entire team. That can happen.

“But also, when a case does happen, it doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody did something risky. Cases can arise even if you’re doing your level best. Imagine a coach’s kid is in day care. Another kid gets infected, or a teacher there is infected, and infects the kid. The coach comes home, hugs his kid and gets COVID-19. He didn’t disobey any protocols. He did the best he could and still got infected.”

The chances of such a scenario would increase if community cases rise, as many public health experts are predicting this fall as the flu season arrives and cooler weather forces more people indoors.

“The United States continues to have uncontrolled community transmission in many areas around the country,” Weatherhead said. “Further uncontrolled community spread, and development of new hot spots, could jeopardize the success of football this fall and winter season, as well as jeopardize the health of players, coaches and community members. The higher the rates of community viral transmission, the greater the risk playing football will have for the athletes, staff and the community.”

During the four testing periods that began Aug. 12, the NFL has had zero, four, one and two players produce confirmed positive results, respectively. There has never been more than 10 personnel from other areas of the team to produce confirmed positive results in a single period. In reality, the NFL has some wiggle room before an increase would jeopardize the current game schedule.

“The hope,” Binney said, “is that daily testing and continued vigilance will still prevent outbreaks. So even if there is a seasonal worsening, maybe they go from one or two cases per week to maybe five or six cases but they’re all isolated on different teams. So that would be an increase in cases, but not enough to derail the season. That would be the hope.”


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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