Masks halt COVID, but pro-sports athletes are divided on wearing them

Home runs in masks may soon become common, but some players feel constrained.
Image: Chicago White Sox v Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs take on the Chicago White Sox during an exhibition game at Wrigley Field on Monday, July 19.Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

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By Christian Red

At New York’s Citi Field last Saturday, Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier was wearing a team-branded blue and white face mask when he socked Mets pitcher Rick Porcello's hanging slider into the empty seats in left field's second deck. Frazier’s two-run shot was part of a 9-3 Yankees win in the Subway Series tuneup before the start of a truncated baseball season.

Frazier, 25, told reporters this month that he plans to sport a mask at all times on the field this season.

“I think that it’s an easy task to do,” said Frazier on July 12. “ I’m just trying to overall make sure that I can do the best part that I can and make sure that our team does stay healthy.”

The New York Daily News called the player a “role model.” But not everyone wants that sort of modeling.

New York Yankees' Clint Frazier rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the New York Mets during the fourth inning of a baseball spring training game, in New York on July 18, 2020.Adam Hunger / AP

COVID-19 shut down professional sports across the globe in mid-March and is still very much “calling the shots,” according to Dr. Christopher Worsham, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. But now that pro sports are gearing up to start or restart their 2020 seasons amid a global pandemic — and play to empty stadiums and arenas — athletes have differing opinions about whether masks should, or even can, be worn during games.

Some ground rules have been set. Major League Baseball and its union agreed upon a lengthy set of health and safety protocols in June for this shortened season: Masks are not mandatory for players once they step on the diamond, but nonplayer personnel must wear masks in the dugout and bullpen at all times. Masks, thus far, haven’t hindered players: Three-time American League MVP Mike Trout has openly advocated wearing masks, and Phillies infielder Didi Gregorius slammed a home run this past weekend wearing one.

But individual players across sports aren’t always playing by the same rules. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, 31, one of the National Football League’s biggest stars, rejected masks during a recent interview with ProFootballTalk. Watt recalled how he tried to wear a visor under his helmet in 2012, his second year in the league, because he thought it “looks so cool.”

“I had it on for about three periods of practice and I said, ‘Take this sucker off, I’m gonna die out here.’ ... So now you’re going to put something around my mouth?” Watt said. “You can keep that. If that comes into play, I don’t think you’re going to see me on the field.” Watt tweeted his frustrations with the league this weekend, joining other NFL stars on social media who demanded that the NFL outline health and safety protocols in a timely fashion.

“I think athletes going back to sports without masks seems very irresponsible right now,” Dr. Scott Braunstein, the medical director of Sollis Health L.A. and a former Los Angeles Rams’ airway management (or emergency medicine) physician. “We know that masks work, they help prevent the spread of the virus. The leagues, if they really want to bring the athletes back to sports safely, they need to make it mandatory.”

Braunstein, who was a sideline doctor during Rams games in the event of any respiratory emergencies, said that not mandating masks for athletes playing in 2020 was “ludicrous.”

It looks like the NFL agrees. The league and its players’ union are still engaged in discussions over health and safety protocols, but the league is recommending that “mouth shields become mandatory,” according to an NFL spokesman. Doctors and engineers from both the league and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) have partnered with the sports equipment company Oakley to design the Oakley Mouth Shield, which would feature multiple plastic sheets with openings fitted behind the helmet’s face guard. The Oakley product still needs further testing to gauge its effectiveness.

Worsham cautioned that while wearing a mask is important in the fight against COVID-19, no mask has yet been developed that “does not interfere with the heavy breathing required for sports and is 100 percent effective at preventing transmission of coronavirus.”

He said that the photos he reviewed of the Oakley Mouth Shield appear to show “two layers of offset plastic vents, which will stop some very large droplets from getting through, but smaller droplets will go right around them.” Worsham said that even “very tiny droplets” can spread the virus.

“When you look at someone like Dr. Fauci or another public health official who actually knows what they’re talking about, every recommendation they make starts with the fact that this is a contagious, deadly virus that we have essentially no control over once someone becomes infected,” Worsham told NBC News, referring to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “From a common-sense standpoint, if something is deadly and you have no control over it, it’s calling the shots.”

Meanwhile, this afternoon Brian McCarthy, who heads up NFL public relations, tweeted that all fans will be required to wear masks at games.

To date, there have been approximately 3.4 million people infected by the coronavirus in the U.S., and over 136,000 deaths attributed to the disease. Braunstein, who has worked as an attending physician at Cedars-Sinai Hospitals for 15 years and who was on the front lines treating patients with COVID-19 earlier this year, said that in his mind, “contact sports should have taken the year off” to allow more time for the development of a vaccine.

The MLB season was scheduled to play in all 30 stadiums, but the Canadian government, fearful of the spread of the virus by players traveling back and forth across the border, announced last week that the Blue Jays are forbidden from playing at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

Major League Baseball’s 60-game season is scheduled to begin Thursday, while NFL training camps are set to open next week (rookies were scheduled to report starting Wednesday) with the league still planning to have a full regular season. The National Hockey League and National Basketball Association, whose regular seasons were halted due to the pandemic, have planned restarts in the coming weeks. But neither sport will see normal conditions: Both plan to restrict play to specific sites to contain and and minimize the spread of the virus and both will immediately reopen with the playoffs: The NBA will play only in Orlando, Florida, and the NHL in two sites in Canada, Edmonton and Toronto.

Worsham said that the NBA's decision to play at one site is the optimal choice for sports events, but even then, "these bubbles aren't as airtight as we want them to be."

“The virus is currently out of control. I’ve taken care of patients young and old, suffering from COVID-19. Seeing them suffocating on their own air, that is something that is hard to get over,” said Braunstein. “The discomfort of wearing a mask is trivial compared to being on a ventilator or developing a lifelong lung disease.”

As sports leagues return to play, Braunstein said one important step would be for players to wear masks — even while trying to stretch a double into a triple, or sprinting toward the end zone.