Covid-19 is disrupting the NFL, NBA and NHL, sidelining dozens of players, including some of the leagues’ biggest stars.
New cases this week have battered the leagues and prompted NBA and NHL postponements. The NFL is grappling with the virus’ wrath with the playoffs beginning next month.
The NFL reported the number of positive cases Monday and Tuesday ended up at 88, but with players coming and going on the list, about 100 is more accurate, the league's worst two-day stretch during the pandemic.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said Wednesday, the omicron variant has been found among the dramatic increase in Covid-19 cases throughout the league.
Sills said NFL owners were told in meetings Wednesday that booster shots are the focus of efforts to minimize spread, with Sills saying the omicron variant is expected to become the dominant strain in the U.S.
The Cleveland Browns earlier on Wednesday announced six players had been placed on the Covid-19 reserve list, including quarterback Baker Mayfield, safety John Johnson III and defensive tackle Malik McDowell.
The Browns have 18 players, including half their 22 starters, on the list.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said there were no plans to cancel or postpone Cleveland’s home game against the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday.
“I think the things that made us successful was keeping safety first. Second, being willing to adapt at all times. It’s clear even in the last couple of weeks that the changes are pretty significant and different than they were before, and I think it calls to modifications to our protocols in general, and we’re working with the players association on that,” Goodell said.
Other star players on the Covid-19 reserve list this week include Los Angeles Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs.
On the hardwood, the NBA is not faring much better.
The Chicago Bulls on Monday announced Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons and Thursday’s game against the Toronto Raptors would be rescheduled.
The games mark the first postponements of the season. As of Wednesday afternoon, about 25 players were in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Ten Bulls players have entered into the league’s Covid-19 protocols since Dec. 1, including stars Zach LaVine and Demar DeRozan, according to NBC Chicago.
One of the faces of the league, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who led the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship last season, was expected to miss Wednesday’s game against the Indiana Pacers after being put on the league’s health and safety protocols Tuesday.
“Like the rest of the country, and as was predicted by our infectious disease specialists, we have seen an increase of cases around the League,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to follow the science and data and will, in close partnership with the Players Association, update our protocols as deemed appropriate by our medical experts.”
About 97 percent of the league’s players are vaccinated, the NBA said. Of the players eligible, the league said, about 60 percent have received a booster vaccine.
The return of professional sports following the onset of the pandemic may have contributed a sense of normalcy for some fans, said Nicole Forrester, an assistant professor in the sports media program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
“It’s maybe a reminder of the reality how we are not necessarily out of the woods and how pervasive this virus is,” Forrester said.
Forrester, a 2008 Olympian in high jump for team Canada, said the public may perceive obstacles prompted by the virus in professional sports as a reflection of their views on the subject. Some may conclude, “OK, this thing is real. It’s back.”
Others “who might be unvaccinated, they might be like, ‘These people are vaccinated and they still get the virus.’ It can conjure up a lot of mixed responses," Forrester said.
In NHL arenas, the league, like the NBA has been forced to postpone games. Unlike the NBA, there’s been more than a few postponements.
More than 140 NHL players have been on the Covid protocol list this season — including more than two dozen since Monday.
The league on Monday postponed the Calgary Flames next three games after six players and a staff member entered the league’s Covid-19 protocol over a 24-hour period.
The team announced Monday that forwards Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane, Brad Richardson and Adam Ruzicka and defensemen Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov were in the protocol.
A spokesperson with the NHL did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The NHL postponed three Ottawa Senators games in mid-November because of the team’s virus outbreak. Other games postponed last month include the New York Islanders games at the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, according to NBC New York.
William Parham, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a psychologist who works with elite athletes, said professional sports leagues are doing well to keep their seasons afloat. He said athletes have been resilient.
Covid-19 and its variants are here for the indefinite future, Parham said. Upticks in infections only show athletes are like the rest of us, Parham said.
“If anything, coronavirus and its various strains, suggest it is an equal opportunity virus,” he said. “It doesn’t discriminate. And everybody is vulnerable including, the best trained and gifted athletes. … They’re not immune.”