Jane McManus: Many sports leagues — from rec leagues to the youth game — have to figure out how to return after the coronavirus pause

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The sports world will have to find its footing in a post-pandemic environment. - Darryl Brooks/Dreamstime/TNS

NEW YORK — Erica Vanstone and her league, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, want to play roller derby, but the safety of the players is the priority for the WFTDA executive director. It’s a complicated task. Unlike the pro leagues that are planning their returns, she doesn’t have the CDC or White House on speed dial. But that doesn’t mean Vanstone and her league take this any less seriously. WFTDA has 40,000 players, coaches and officials in 450 leagues and 23 countries. The coronavirus has ravaged some, while others have been largely unaffected.

How do you formulate a plan from scratch that mitigates risk for the women who play a full-contact, breathe-in-your-face, crash-into-the-stands sport?

Watching sports is one thing, but what if you just want to play?

“We’re the athletes and the governing body, so we’re coming from the point of view of athletes first,” Vanstone said.

Last week, WFTDA announced its plan to return to play. It involved numerous calls with public health officials and epidemiologists in its own ranks. Leagues now have a mathematical formula to use and the results will tell them what step in a seven-phase return-to-play plan they land in.

With inconsistent data on infection rates and testing coming from localities in the United States, WFTDA will use a formula derived from local population density and active coronavirus cases over a 14-day period to determine the local risk to its players.

“The benefit and challenge of being an amateur sport is that you can play it anywhere,” Vanstone said. “But we realized the information leagues were getting from local governments and data providers was so wildly different.”

(Full disclosure, I played roller derby for seven years as a member of WFTDA.)

On April 4, while the virus was surging and stay home orders were in effect in many states, President Donald Trump convened a call with many professional sports commissioners to give them their marching orders. He wanted sports back as soon as possible, the NFL in the fall, and fans back in the seats.

There is a political and economic imperative that is compelling professional sports organizations to make plans. The NBA, NHL and NWSL are planning tournament-style play that will take place in a small number of venues over a shortened time frame. Each professional league will depend on extensive testing of players and personnel for the virus to try to mitigate the risk to players, officials and employees.

But not every league has the resources for that. Not every adult basketball or hockey league can test each player and coach before game day, and there is no social distancing on a football field.

The CDC has released “considerations” for the return of youth sports. Each section, on cleaning and keeping players socially distanced, starts with the vague assertion that youth leagues “may consider” each of the suggestions. It starts by saying that the advice isn’t a substitute for local guidance, and says that some activities are riskier than others without helping leagues assess what community public health conditions would match the appropriate level of risk.

The CDC also recently removed guidance that recommended against convening choirs, despite several studies showing that the virus transmits easily between singers. When guidance can be amended without deference to science, it leaves organizations in the dark about the relative risk in different settings. These discussions are helpful in sports because, let’s face it, there is quite a bit of yelling.

“The level of detail in our plan comes out of frustration with the kind of data that’s available,” Vanstone said.

And beyond the specifics — for example having smaller pods within leagues where players interact — there are complicated health, legal and travel considerations for recreational and youth leagues. Coaches and officials need to accurately assess the risk level of a community by calling local health departments and understanding the data. It’s more involved than a simple, “Play ball!”

Nick Caringi, the senior director of operations for Little League hosted a webinar to help leagues as they return to play in which he advised against high-fives and post-game handshakes.

“The new normal is going to look a little different than what we’re used to,” Caringi said.

The NCAA’s decision to suspend recruiting was beneficial because it took the pressure off some travel programs and tournaments as the virus was spreading. With that extended to the end of July, a deadline was removed for players who aspire to play in college and beyond.

Tom Farrey, who heads up the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, collaborated with NC State on a survey of parents with children in youth sports to see how willing they were to restart youth sports.

“Half the parents are worried about the health impact as they put their kids back in sports, especially in the African American population as it’s been hit the hardest. They’re more comfortable with a phased return,” Farrey said.

But youth sports aren’t immune to economic pressures either, Farrey notes. “The organization of youth sports is chomping at the bit to come back,” he said. “In some ways it’s because it’s what they do, but in other ways because it’s a business.”

Although at the start of the pandemic, the guidance suggested children and youth were spared by the coronavirus, recently a dangerous new condition, multi-system inflammatory syndrome, has been found in children who have had and perhaps even recovered from the virus.

The Aspen Institute has put on a number of webinars for those in the youth sports community. Dr. Jon Finnoff of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, who took part in the webinars, told one audience that the health of athletes and the community should be the priority.

“I think a lot of that is being driven by the economy,” Dr. Finnoff said. “Absolutely, the economy is being crushed. But as a doctor and looking at this objectively, I think we need to err on the side of being cautious. We’re talking about our lives.”

That’s where hundreds of sports organizations, from amateur to recreational and youth sports are in the same position. In the northeast, a return to games means overlooking some basic guidance from the CDC and many experts in the field. As beneficial as sports are to mental and physical health, the return to play everywhere and at every level has to be managed intentionally, especially in sports where contact is part of the game.

“Because we’re a contact sport, our concerns are magnified,” Vanstone said. “We’re not a sport where you can wear a mask.”

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