With the daily decline in Covid-19 infection rates it appears evermore likely that sports will return in the near future. Most sports governing bodies are developing plans for the return to play. Many of the protocols being developed share common features and will change as more information becomes available. The summaries that follow include the latest information that has been made available for each organization.

Major League Baseball

While the owners and players continue to argue about money the league has come up with a proposal to keep all participants safe. The new rules were proposed in mid May and included a plan to hold a 3-phase spring training in mid-June. The proposal addresses some obvious points such as encouraging social distancing when practical and lots of testing for those involved. Players who test positive would be quarantined and those with COVID-19 symptoms of temperatures above 100 degrees prevented from entering team facilities.

Also included were bans on spitting, smokeless tobacco and sunflower seeds. When the new rules were proposed in mid May the plan was to hold a 3-phase spring training in mid-June.

 Showering would be discouraged at team facilities and other amenities such as hydrotherapy pools and steam rooms would be prohibited. Players will also be encouraged to remain in team hotels on the road.

The owners and players continue too far apart as they negotiate a start to the 2020 season. The biggest stumbling blocks to date are money and the number of games to be played along with general safety concerns. Back in March the sides agreed to a prorated salary system based on the number of games played. Now that it appears that the games will be played without fans the owners are demanding another pay cut.

CBS Sports is reporting that the owners latest proposal delivered Monday was for a 76-game regular season ending on September 27 with the playoffs finishing by the end of October. The proposal offers 75 percent prorated salaries, a pool of playoff money and no draft pick compensation for signing players. The league recently rejected the player’s proposal that called for a 114 game season and an expanded playoff. The league wants the players response by Wednesday.

The league is also asking the players to approve a revision to the Operations Manual that says players would have to sign an “acknowledgement of risk” before agreeing to play. Jorge Castillo of the LA Time reports that the players believe this is an attempt to undermine their right to challenge the league if it fails to provide a safe working environment.

The sides do not seem to be getting any closer to an agreement and with each passing day the potential season gets shorter and shorter. Will we see baseball this summer?

College Football

The Big Ten Conference established a Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases in early March. The task force has a member from each of the conference schools and is charged with putting together a set of “best practices” to provide guidance to member schools. Dr. Christopher Kratochvil from the University of Nebraska Chairs the group.

The task force is still developing its plan and hopes to have it ready for when practice begins in late summer. They are currently collecting and analyzing data from around the country including reports that multiple Alabama football players tested positive for COVID-19 after the players worked out together off-campus. Around 50 attended the workouts and at least five are positive. 

The Big Ten will also look at information provided by the Centers for Disease Control, the International Olympic Committee and professional sports leagues. Michigan State University has released information about the return of athletes to campus. The University of Michigan is still discussing the process, but multiple sources have leaked those discussions.

MICHIGAN STATE

The MSU football team will be allowed to return to campus housing on June 14. They will be tested for COVID-19 on June 15 and then undergo a week of self-isolation. Players who were negative on the first test will be tested again on June 22. If the second test is also negative they will be cleared to begin voluntary workouts. Players that tested positive in the first round of testing will undergo a 10-day quarantine. 

MSU has developed a strict protocol to ensure the safety of all players and staff members. Strength and conditioning staffers, athletic trainers, equipment managers and coaches will also undergo tests. Locker rooms and other common areas will remain closed at this time. Players will be provided with facemasks that are to be worn at all times except during workouts. All equipment and facilities will be cleaned after each workout group. Groups will be based upon whom the player lives with. Upon leaving the facility after a workout the players will receive clean clothes to wear the following day. They will return their dirty clothes upon arrival each day.

UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

Michigan has not made its plans public at this time, but the Detroit Free Press is reporting that according to sources the freshman class of players was told to report to campus on June 15. Another source indicates that the entire team would be able to return if they chose to. All players and coaches will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.

A team spokesman released the following statement last week, “Based on (Governor Whitmers) announcement, we are holding discussions with university leadership on the appropriate date to begin allowing student-athletes to safely return for testing followed by voluntary workouts.”

NFL

The National Football League (NFL) has been promising to start on time this fall, but how realistic is that promise? September 10 is not that far away.

Team facilities were able to open back up on May 19 as long as state and federal guidelines allow it. The first phase is limited to 50 percent of teams’ non-field employees with no more that 75 people in the building at one time. Coaches and players, except those receiving medical treatment, are not allowed. Coaches will be allowed to return in phase two, players can come back after the NFL offseason ends on June 26.

Team offseason programs have been conducted virtually and will continue to be done that way through at least June 12. If conditions allow, the NFL could give teams permission to bring players in for on-field workouts. Teams have saved their one mandatory event, a three-day mini camp, which could be used from June 12-26. The NFL would have to approve its utilization. If training camps are expected to open on time, teams can’t host player workouts from June 26 until the start of camp.

Currently, teams are planning for a start to training camp in late July. According to ESPN, that start will depend on three factors: implementation of a health and safety protocol that minimizes the chances of infection and ensures quick action to prevent spread, agreement with the players union on the protocol and potential economic concessions, and the approval of state and local governments in the localities that house NFL stadiums.

Sports Illustrated obtained the NFL memo containing the new protocols they include:

- Players, coaches, trainers and team personnel will be separated into three tiers, with access to various parts of the team facilities limited to only the most essential employees.

- All players and employees with access to restricted areas must undergo daily screening and testing.

- Locker rooms must be reconfigured to allow players to maintain six feet of social distance at all times.

- Teams will hold virtual meetings whenever possible, and are encouraged to hold in-person meetings outdoors if possible and have those present wear masks.

- Workout groups are to be limited to 15 people or fewer and players are encouraged to wear masks in the weight room.

The NFL has stuck to its original schedule throughout the pandemic. At this time training camps are still scheduled to open in July. If the proper protocols have been implemented and there is no resurgence of the virus it looks like the NFL will play as scheduled.

NBA

ESPN is reporting that the National Basketball Association (NBA) plans to resume play on July 31 at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports. Twenty-two teams will begin training at their own facilities on June 30 and do so for one week. The teams will then fly to Florida on July 7 and will probably have to quarantine for some period of time. The quarantine time requirements will vary depending upon the home location of the team. Plans are fluid at this point, but some type of training camp will ensue. It will most likely include exhibition games or scrimmages between teams. The NBA plans to create a “bubble” and everyone will be required to adhere to strict safety procedures. Daily coronavirus testing will take place and those that test positive will be removed from the team for quarantine and treatment. The rest of the team will be allowed to continue playing.

The NBA settled on 22 teams to provide a way to get back into game action before the 16-team playoff begins. The 22 teams include those currently in playoff position and those within six games of the number eight seed. This will allow a team to make a late season run and qualify for the playoffs. Money is another reason to add eight regular season games for 22 teams. Adding the additional teams will be a moneymaker for both the players and teams. Player’s paychecks have been cut and local television revenue has been affected. The additional 88 games will help mitigate some of those losses. The Pistons are not one of the 22 teams selected.

The regular season will last 16 days with five to six games per day. The games will count toward the final playoff seeding with several teams hoping to move into the top 16 and make the playoffs. The eight teams not involved in the Orlando regular season/playoffs are expected to conduct some type of mini camp this summer to prevent a 10-month layoff. The logistics for this have not been worked out yet. As it stands Game 7 of the NBA Finals would be no later than October 12.

NHL

In a move designed to get the season back on track the National Hockey League has allowed teams to reopen their training facilities last Monday if local regulations allow. Players will be able to participate in small group team training with a maximum of six players present. A limited number of team staff can be present during the voluntary sessions. On-ice workouts are for players only. No coaches or other personal can be on the ice. Face coverings must be worn when not exercising or on the ice.

Everyone involved will be given a test 48-hours before participation and if local testing capacity allows will be tested twice a week. Players using public transportation (planes, trains) to return to their home city must undergo a 14-day quarantine before participating. Players that live in another NHL city may make arrangements to work out there rather than traveling. Also players are not allowed to work out or skate in public facilities or organize group skates outside of the teams training sessions.

The return to home training facilities is in preparation for the opening of training camps in July. The league hopes to finish the season at two hub cities which have not been chosen yet. The remainder of the season will consist of a 24-team playoff with no resumption of the regular season. Games will be played in empty arenas in the hub cities with players and staff housed in isolation. The players union voted to approve the format of the playoffs, but has yet to vote on an actual return to the ice.

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