Sports Leagues Are Overrun With COVID. But They Are Playing On.

The NFL and the NBA are ramping up testing in an attempt to keep their seasons going. The NHL has shut down several teams due to outbreaks.
Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns reacts during the first half of the game against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio.
 Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns reacts during the first half of the game against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Professional sports leagues across the U.S. and Europe are suffering from significant COVID-19 outbreaks, but the biggest leagues have stopped short of postponing their seasons despite the rapid onset of the Omicron variant surge. 

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The National Football League and National Basketball Association are ramping up vaccination, testing, and mitigation efforts in an attempt to keep their seasons on track.

After more than a hundred players across the NFL were added to the league’s COVID-19 list this week, the league introduced a number of new protocols to try to mitigate exposure to the virus. “Effective immediately, all clubs will implement preventative measures that have proven effective: masking regardless of vaccination status, remote or outdoor meetings, eliminating in-person meals, and no outside visitors while on team travel,” the league said in a Thursday statement.

At the same time, the NFL and the players union reached an agreement to allow players who are asymptomatic to return to their teams sooner, according to ESPN. Previously, players needed to produce two negative results from PCR tests 24 hours apart to return to action, but now players can return so long as they produce two tests with viral loads that don’t exceed a certain level of contagiousness. Players are also permitted to use results from Mesa rapid tests. 

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday that there “has not been any discussions” about postponing the Browns-Raiders game, but just a few days later, his tune had changed.

On Friday, the NFL postponed the Cleveland Browns-Las Vegas Raiders game from Saturday afternoon to Monday after more than a dozen Browns players landed on the COVID-19 list, and moved games between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team as well as the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks to Tuesday. 

Players have been critical of the NFL’s response to the surge, which the NFL’s chief medical officer partially attributed to the Omicron variant, less than a week after the league’s first Omicron case was discovered in a Washington Football Team employee. Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield tweeted his frustration on Thursday evening before the NFL rescheduled his team’s game, imploring the league to “make up your damn mind on protocols.” 

“Actually caring about player safety would mean delaying the game with this continuing at the rate it is,” Mayfield said in another tweet. “But to say you won’t test vaccinated players if they don’t have symptoms, then to pull this randomly. Doesn’t make any sense to me.”

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The NBA, meanwhile, has already postponed multiple Chicago Bulls games after more than half of the team’s active roster was sidelined with COVID cases. On Thursday, the league reached an agreement with the NBA Players Association to mandate game-day testing for the two-week period between Dec. 26 and Jan. 8 for players who have not received a booster shot prior to 14 days earlier or had a recent infection, according to a memo obtained by ESPN

The new protocols also require masks on team benches, in team facilities, and while traveling, according to ESPN. Fifty-two players and two coaches have entered into the league’s COVID-19 safety protocols after testing positive, according to ESPN. 

The outbreaks have also hit the National Hockey League and European soccer, where several matches have been postponed as outbreaks have hit a third of the teams in the English Premier League. In the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers played their Thursday night game in an empty arena, an eerie reminder of when sports leagues first returned last year.

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This didn’t help much in saving the team from delays in the immediate term, however, as the Canadiens announced Friday that their Saturday game had been postponed. The NHL announced Friday afternoon it was postponing all Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers, and Colorado Avalanche games through Christmas. 

The league had postponed 11 games this season due to COVID issues. 


The NFL and NBA are much more highly-vaccinated than the general public, but preliminary studies have suggested that the two-dose mRNA vaccines are much less effective at producing the number of antibodies necessary to prevent infection from the highly-transmissible Omicron variant. Some preliminary studies, however, have suggested that booster shots from the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer enhance protection against severe illness that may require hospitalization

“The booster offers a lot of protection. It is not perfect, it is not foolproof,” Dr. Lisa Gralinski, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, told VICE News Thursday. “But it is the best that we have right now.”