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The Cost of the Sports World’s Biodome Obsession

From the NBA to MLB to the Premier League, many of the world’s top sports leagues are proposing creative ways to come back. The logistical issues are staggering—and the problems go far beyond that.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Everybody wants to know when sports will come back. Fans want to know, athletes want to know, and coaches want to know. The president of the United States held a conference call with the commissioners of America’s major sports leagues over the weekend because he wants to know. (He said in a press conference that he’s tired of watching sports reruns.) All of the television networks that make millions by broadcasting sports would like to know. I, a professional sportswriter, would sure as hell like to know.

However, the answer to when sports will come back depends entirely on a different question: How will sports come back? Will we wait until after the COVID-19 pandemic is contained on an international level? If so, we may have to cancel the rest of the 2020 sports calendar. Will we simply pick a starting date—July 1 sounds nice!—and hope the virus adjusts to our demands? If so, we may cause a spike in diagnoses and undo much of the work we’ve done to mitigate the virus.

It seems like sports organizations around the globe are exploring a third option: They’re contemplating a concept that we’ll call Biodome Sports. While we regular humans hole up in our homes and wait for this to end, sports leagues are attempting to procure coronavirus testing kits and medical supplies to which the rest of us lack access, and then hold games in secure locations under quarantine. By eliminating travel, removing fans, and enacting measures to ensure that athletes can’t easily transmit the virus to one another, Biodome Sports proposals are designed to allow sports to carry on without worsening the pandemic.

This is no longer a fringe idea. The NBA has apparently looked into options to stage its playoffs under quarantine, with Las Vegas emerging as the most likely location. The Premier League reportedly hopes to finish its season in July with a “TV mega-event” in which players are tested for the virus and then housed in sequestered camps under quarantine. On March 29, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk suggested that the NFL could conduct its 2020 season from the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia—incidentally, the site selected for a similar continuity project in the 1950s, when the government identified it as a discreet location to build an underground bunker that could be used by Congress in the case of nuclear war. (The NFL and Congress: two essential American institutions that must go on, even if the world is burning.)

And the last 24 hours have brought two new proposals. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported Tuesday that MLB is focused on a plan to play its entire season in Arizona, with protocols in place to keep umpires at a safe distance from the players and the players sitting 6 feet apart in the empty stands rather than sharing a dugout. (The plan doesn’t specify how MLB will combat baseball players’ tendencies to constantly spit, rub their hands all over the ball, and repeatedly touch their faces.) On Monday, UFC president Dana White said that he’s close to purchasing a private island on which he could host prized international fights; as Spencer Hall points out, this is more or less the plot of the 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon.

It’s obvious why sports leagues are so interested in these ideas. The vast majority of revenue they generate comes from billion-dollar television contracts, and while much of the money that leagues would have made this year from ticket sales, parking, and concessions is long gone, they can potentially recoup hundreds of millions of dollars by putting forth some semblance of a season for the cameras. When the other option is generating zero dollars, of course leagues are getting creative.

But these ideas may also have backing from entities with no revenue at stake: governments. The Independent report about the Premier League’s plan says it has the blessing of the British government. The Passan report says “federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing, and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.” (No government official from any nation has condoned Dana White’s Secret Bloodsport Island.)

Sports would surely soothe fans’ psyches in these trying times. Does that make playing in a bubble—and all the sacrifices that would need to be made for that to happen—worth it?

The would-be pioneer of Biodome Sports is the Big 3, a three-on-three basketball league owned by Ice Cube and composed primarily of retired players. Two weeks ago, it announced its plans to host a tournament/reality TV show featuring players who test negative for COVID-19 and agree to quarantine themselves in a big house with a basketball court. Even then, though, the league didn’t propose playing a complete season under quarantine—just a miniature competition featuring 16 to 22 participants. That’s because the logistical challenges inherent to most of these proposals seem to render them impossible.

The Big 3 has 72 total players (12 teams, six players per team) and did not feel comfortable proposing that its entire league live under one roof. The NBA has more than 500 players, plus coaches, assistants, and referees. MLB has 780 players on its teams’ 26-man rosters—and Passan’s report indicates that teams could carry “significantly expanded rosters,” due to a contracted schedule, the blistering Arizona heat, and the chances of a player getting COVID-19. An NFL quarantine would require a small city to support it. Factoring in equipment managers, trainers, grounds crew staffers, and food suppliers, how would leagues ensure that everyone has the necessities to live over an extended period of time?

However, even if playing these games were logistically possible, the bigger question here is moral. One of America’s main problems in combating the coronavirus has been a critical shortage of testing. Any of these leagues would require thousands of tests—which means taking thousands of tests away from people who need them more. The NBA is reportedly looking into rapid-response testing, and Passan’s article says MLB’s plan would not move forward until there is “a significant increase in available coronavirus tests with a quick turnaround time. … MLB’s testing [would] not diminish access for the general public.” Still, it’s unclear who’d determine how widely available public tests would have to become before sports leagues could jump to the front of the line and snag a few thousand.

And even if the measures included in these proposals prevented athletes from spreading COVID-19, what would happen to those who get injured? Would we really divert scarce medical resources and crucial health care professionals away from hospitals to provide surgery to a player with a torn ACL or ruptured Achilles tendon? Doctors and nurses are running out of protective equipment in COVID-19 hotspots—how could we use masks and gloves for nonessential procedures on athletes? Why take supplies that could save lives to save sports?

Then there’s the matter of player participation. A quarantined sports league would necessitate athletes to leave their families. The Passan report says the MLB plan would require players to separate “from their families for an indefinite amount of time—perhaps as long as 4 1/2 months.” Are players going to miss the births of their children to participate in Biodome Sports? Will they be willing to say goodbye to parents in the midst of a pandemic that takes its biggest toll on older victims?

And what happens if a player breaks quarantine and tests positive? Would players really continue on after seeing a colleague get diagnosed with a contagious disease? Passan’s article proposes that in this scenario MLB teams would simply keep playing, with no quarantine mandate and a minor leaguer called up to replace the sick teammate in question.

Every solution falls apart when we consider the possibility of athletes contracting COVID-19—which can be devastating for young, healthy people (even, say, baseball players). I don’t know what’s more upsetting: the Biodome Sports proposals that seemingly don’t account for the potential of infection, or those who acknowledge what could happen and plan to keep on rolling.

The argument for playing sports amid a global crisis is simple: We need distractions. The Independent reports that the British government “likes the idea of the population engrossed in the national sport.” President Trump has yet to weigh in on Biodome Sports, but has been vocal about his desire for sports to come back. “I want fans back in arenas,” he said in a briefing after his call with sports league commissioners. “And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports.”

I buy the concept of sports as a salve. Time and again, regions have rallied around their sports teams in difficult times. On Monday, ESPN reaired the Saints’ famous return to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. There are two things I remember about being an 11-year-old who lived in New York in 2001: being scared every single day and watching the Yankees make a run to the World Series. Biodome Sports wouldn’t bring us the communal effect of occupying a stadium with our fellow fans, but they’d provide an illusion of normalcy during the least normal period of our lifetimes. I’m starting to go stir-crazy in my apartment; being able to put some hoops on would help.

But as we try to fight the coronavirus, we don’t need illusion—we need people to avoid contracting and spreading the disease, and for those who have it to have access to adequate care. Not only would Biodome Sports ask athletes to seclude themselves for the sake of our amusement. They would also inevitably divert key resources that are needed more elsewhere.

Everybody wants to know when sports will come back, because many of us feel that sports are essential. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how utterly inessential they really are. There are people whose jobs are to fix this crisis. For now, our job is to stay inside. Biodome Sports would make our jobs easier, but we can’t tolerate it if it makes theirs any harder.