On Saturday, the UFC became the first major professional sporting event to conduct a live event in the United States since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic ground competitive athletics to a halt across the country.
The event, held in an empty arena in Jacksonville, Florida, saw many of the peripheral participants, from coaches to doctors, wearing face masks. But when it came to the heart of the action, the only noticeable difference was the clearer sound of gloves and kicks connecting with an opponent, absent the muting effect of a live crowd.
The event, if nothing else, provided some optimism we will be able to pave a path back to normalcy, something we’re all pining for after two months of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
The NFL, unlike the other major sports leagues, has had the benefit of time. The league was in the early stages of the offseason when COVID-19 began to drastically alter American life. And the league has managed to stay on schedule through its offseason, with some relatively minor adjustments. Free agency and the draft went off without a hitch, and teams are now in the midst of virtual offseason programs.
But what happens come fall? Will the virus be under control enough to begin training camp on time, or, more importantly, the regular season?
That remains to be seen. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has been a leading voice on the pandemic as a member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, has long said the virus sets the timetable.
Fauci stuck with that line of thinking when talking about the hurdles the NFL faces in the coming months during an interview with NBC Sports’ Peter King. Fauci said our country’s response plan to a likely resurgent virus in the fall will dictate the NFL’s ability to conduct its 2020 season.
“Now, even if the virus goes down dramatically in June and July and August, as the virus starts returning in the fall, it would be in my mind, shame on us if we don’t have in place all of the mechanisms to prevent it from blowing up again,” Fauci told King. “In other words, enough testing to test everybody that needs to be tested. Enough testing so that when someone gets infected, you could immediately do contact tracing and isolation to prevent the infection from going to a couple of infections to hundreds of infections. That’s how you control an outbreak.”
Rapid and available testing will be key. Fauci indicated there’s currently not enough testing available for the NFL to check every player, once or multiple times a week, but he’s optimistic the resources will be in place in the near future, especially if we remain on track with the development of an antigen test.
With proper testing, teams could quickly quarantine any player or staff member who tests positive. The UFC experienced that prior to last weekend’s event when fighter Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza tested positive and had to be pulled from the card.
Of course, given how much close-quarters contact is involved in football, the risk of an outbreak remains one of the greatest concerns. Two of Souza’s cornermen also tested positive for the virus last week.
In early March, the NBA was the first American sports league to shut down after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive. Teammate Donovan Mitchell also contracted the virus.
What happens if five players in an NFL locker room test positive?
“Once you wind up having a situation where it looks like it’s spread within a team, you got a real problem,” Fauci said. “You gotta shut it down.”
As for fans in the stands, Fauci didn’t rule out the possibility, although he didn’t seem keen on the idea of stadiums running at full capacity by the fall.
“If the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart,” Fauci said. “I mean, that’s something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection. I keep getting back to that: It’s going to depend. Like, right now, if you fast forward, and it is now September. The season starts. I say you can’t have a season -- it’s impossible. There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do. But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not gonna be the way it is right now.”
In addition to the UFC, multiple international leagues are returning without fans in attendance, most notably the Korean Baseball Organization and German soccer league Bundesliga.