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Experts Say It Is Too Soon For Pro Sports To Reopen


NASCAR returned to action yesterday, but, sports fans, this country's other major pro sports remain shut down because of the coronavirus. Momentum has been building for them to restart. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman on whether it's too soon for a comeback.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The short answer is yes, says Emory University epidemiologist Zach Binney. Right now is too soon for a major sports return. Binney says there still are too many cases of COVID-19.

ZACH BINNEY: It increases the likelihood of somebody in a league being infected and then spreading it around a league.

GOLDMAN: And he says there need to be more tests so leagues can in good conscience do the kind of rigorous screening they need to.

BINNEY: If the general population and even first responders and health care workers don't have the tests that they need, then it would raise severe ethical questions for a pro sports team to be testing their folks on a daily basis.

GOLDMAN: Still, these issues haven't stopped some sports.


MIKE JOY: Green flag - NASCAR is back.

GOLDMAN: Stock car racing's return yesterday, televised on Fox Sports, was notable for its numerous safety precautions. There were no fans in the grandstand at Darlington Raceway, and the number of support people at the track was limited. But there wasn't testing. Officials said they were being sensitive to the country's test shortage, but that might have increased the risk for those there. At a UFC event earlier this month, mixed martial arts made its return, also boasting rigorous health and safety measures. But there were violations even after a fighter and two of his cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus and were removed from the event. After fighter Justin Gaethje slugged his way to victory, TV interviewer Joe Rogan stood next to him, not socially distancing, and then shook Gaethje's bloody hand, saying, I don't care.


JOE ROGAN: I don't care. Congratulations.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Corona's way worse, so blood won't kill you.

GOLDMAN: Asked about the violations, UFC president Dana White promised to be better. Other leagues plotting their returns hoped to avoid problems like these. Last week baseball commissioner Rob Manfred described to CNN MLB's enormous set of proposed safety measures.


ROB MANFRED: They're extraordinarily detailed. They cover everything from how the players would travel, who has access to the ballpark, strict limits on number of people.

GOLDMAN: As well as frequent testing with quick results. It's a daunting task to get all this ready for a projected June spring training and July start to the regular season. But epidemiologist Binney thinks baseball, the NBA, pro hockey and soccer could return this summer with restart plans that acknowledge the virus' uncertain path.

BINNEY: As long as you recognize that any plans that you're making are provisional and you're not completely locking yourself in and saying, you know, this is going to happen.

GOLDMAN: Money is part of the planning, too. Athletes in all sports face pay cuts in these interrupted seasons. Baseball players know it's a bad look to squabble over finances right now, but many say a reported second round of proposed cuts is too much, especially if they're potentially putting their health on the line by playing during a pandemic. This was Tampa Bay pitcher Blake Snell on his Twitch channel.


BLAKE SNELL: I'm sorry if you guys think differently, but the risk is way now higher, and the amount of money I make is way lower. Why would I think about doing that? So in my head, I'm preparing for next season.

GOLDMAN: Most leagues are facing a similar decision in the coming weeks. Rob Manfred says if this season is permanently scuttled, baseball's losses would approach $4 billion. The financial and possible psychic cost across sports could be enormous, but it's being weighed against the cost of restarting the games too soon.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS SONG, "YOU ARE THE RIGHT ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on