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Are You Okay With The NHL Coming Back?

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Working through some moral dilemmas here.

MEXICO-HEALTH-VIRUS-RECOVERY Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP via Getty Images

The NHL looks to be firmly on track to restart play, or at least to make one hell of an effort at it. The CBA extension is signed and sealed, the Return To Play protocol is apparently on track, and hotels in Toronto and Edmonton are preparing to host the twenty-four qualifier teams. Schedules have been drawn up. It looks like this is happening.

Plenty of hockey fans are naturally excited for the game to come back. So am I. Life in the age of COVID is dullness with a backdrop of horrifying news, and that’s if you’re lucky. Half the point of sports is to have a circus, and I think pretty much everyone could use a circus.

At the same time, there’s a meaningful contingent of fans who aren’t comfortable with any of this. The novel coronavirus is a frightening thing for anyone to face at any age. Dismissing the risk out of hand on the basis that the whole playing population of the NHL is under 45 is misguided: one, there are a lot more people involved in a league restart than just the players, and they all matter; two, low risk is not no risk; three, surviving COVID does not guarantee that someone will come back to what they were. There is evidence that at least some people suffer lingering effects related to the virus. Especially for professional athletes, who make a living based on being in peak physical condition, the risk of COVID is a terrifying one.

So some people, understandably, look at all that and say: why the hell are we starting sports again at all? All that talk about entertainment and the social value of having sports on seems trivial next to the terror of COVID’s health impacts. Starting sports again, when the risk of COVID looms, is deeply immoral to this perspective.

I’ve got mixed feelings on this. Maybe you do too. There’s a point where I’d say it’s all right to run sports and a point where I’d say it isn’t. There’s a point where I’d say it’s time to shut down. But I think everyone has to make up their own mind on that.

I am, really obviously, not any kind of medical expert. I’m a fan trying to decide whether I can watch and follow this restart in good conscience. This is how I go through it.

There are three basic reasons to argue the NHL shouldn’t restart.

  1. The extra risk from COVID is too great to justify asking players, staff and others to take it on.
  2. The measures required to control COVID risk are too demanding to impose them on players and staff.
  3. The resources required by the league restarting, particularly in terms of testing, will take away from more important public health concerns.

Extra Risk

Starting with the obvious, here: the chances of any of us getting infected aren’t zero. Actual, total isolation, where you never get within six feet of another human being ever, is very hard and very rarely maintained. Currently, most of us try to manage it with masks, keeping social contacts limited, keeping our distance in public, and avoiding going out more than necessary. These are all good and useful things, but you can do everything right and still catch it if your unlucky number comes up.

And it’s worth acknowledging: quite a few players will be testing positive early on as the league sets up training camps and large-scale testing, and some people will quote those numbers as proof the league can’t restart. The positive tests will reflect the risks they were at beforehand from all sources and the new, massive level of testing, but they will be sobering nonetheless. Given the time this article is scheduled for publication, there’s a decent chance it’ll be simultaneous with some results.

This piece, by epidemiologist Zach Binney, talks about the issue in the context of the NBA and the NFL, but the logic is applicable to the NHL. If the league creates an environment where the infection rate is equivalent or less than the public at large, they have a justification for continuing to operate, because they aren’t requiring the players and staff to take on significant extra risk of COVID compared to what they would have anyway. The fact that Ontario and Alberta (where the NHL is planning to have its two hub cities) currently have much lower infection rates than most of the United States adds to this, because players aren’t generally being asked to go to a higher-risk jurisdiction. The NBA, on the other hand, is currently confronting the risk associated with restarting in Florida, whose case counts have been increasing.

There’s an objection here, though: a player could say that the average infection rate where he lives is one thing, but that he is taking greater precautions than the average person and his risk ought to be lower. He could also say that as someone who makes a living off his athletic capacity, the risk to his future from COVID is greater than an ordinary person; this is exacerbated if he has a pre-existing condition. If he has people close to him at heightened vulnerability to COVID, he could again say that the risk to his family is greater than he can accept.

All of those make it clear that players have to be able to opt out of returning to play if they choose, and the league and the union have agreed that any player who does so does it without penalty. Travis Hamonic and Sven Baertschi have made this choice, and it ought to be respected. This is an unprecedented situation and hockey is not, by any definition, an essential service. It has to be up to each player whether or not to participate.

So can the risk be controlled? I think it can, which is not the same as saying it will be. Some leagues around the world, famously the Korean Baseball Organization and the English Premier League, have been able to restart and are conducting seasons. South Korea has been a world leader in controlling COVID, but the United Kingdom has not, and the EPL has nonetheless reported quite low positive rates of COVID amidst extensive testing. With the precautions of the bubbles, regular testing, some distancing, and the generally stable situation in Canada, I think there is a reasonable hope of running a league that does not put players and staff at disproportionate risks of infection.

The Measures

That leads to the second issue. I can think of worse places to be stuck than a nice hotel, but the fact remains players will be separated from their families for much of the time they’re in the bubble—possibly as much as two months, depending on how the team performs (families will apparently be allowed to join players as of the conference finals, and obviously once a team is eliminated its players and staff will go home.) Being apart from your family is a lot to ask, especially for parents. While NHL players do have regular road trips and some of them live apart from their families for long stretches, this is still a heavy burden.

Again, a player has the right to opt out here. This is potentially a longer absence than they would have had to account for and that changes the situation for some people. It’s also a tough situation for staff, who will have to commit to some time in the bubble also, and who don’t have the same options (or the same financial power) as players. It’s a lot to ask. Spending a few weeks or even a couple of months away is not easy. I don’t think it makes it unreasonable to try running a league at all, which has to be in bubbles to be viable, but it’s not nothing.

As for the other safety measures, most of them aren’t too extreme, or unfamiliar to most of us at this point given how we’ve been living. Having taken a COVID test via a nasal swab I wouldn’t rank it as a personal highlight, but it wasn’t worse than uncomfortable and it was over in about eight seconds. Still, that ties into another possible concern.

Testing Capacity

Early on in the COVID epidemic, there was a crisis of testing capacity. Ontario simply could not test anyone but the most obvious high-risk persons and was struggling to process these tests in a timely fashion. Running any kind of sports league in Ontario at this time would have been impossible as well as being morally dubious. The amount of testing needed to try and secure a site would not have been attainable. If the NHL is depriving health officials of testing capacity they desperately need, that isn’t something I think any of us can support in good conscience.

The NHL is retaining private companies to conduct the testing and contact tracing in Ontario and Alberta (companies are yet to be named, but this is indicated in the Phase 4 memo.) This should be enough to avoid any drain on public resources. In a desperate situation, there is a potential concern here where all of the public and private testing capacity in the province is needed to manage things, and the NHL therefore does impair the public welfare. But Ontario and Alberta have had considerable excess testing capacity for some time now, meaning they don’t look like they’re anywhere close to needing to put claims on the private sector like the NHL is doing. As it stands now, the NHL shouldn’t pose any threat to Ontario and Alberta’s capacity to test anyone who needs or wants to be tested. The league’s testing protocols are outside relying on public health resources altogether; there should be no concern about tests being given to the Philadelphia Flyers as opposed to front-line workers, or anything similar.

The Situation On The Ground

The rise of COVID was terrifying. I think most of us will remember forever that surreal, sleepwalking feeling in mid-March as the whole country seemed to shut down, we darted out to grab groceries and otherwise basically sheltered in place. It’s burnt into our brains. In an environment like that, sports were the furthest thing from our minds.

We’re not in that space anymore, while still being a long way from normal. Canada is engaged in cautious reopenings with all sorts of compromises, precautions and limits. It’s not a circumstance where you can quite do anything normally, but it’s not a total shutdown either. It’s the halfway house of the pandemic as we try to preserve some semblance of life while waiting for a vaccine that hopefully gets us the real thing back.

The NHL returning won’t feel normal, not just from the lack of fans and the fact we’re not used to NHL hockey in August, but because life still isn’t normal. It’s not the same abnormal that it was four months ago, either. The fear from the earliest days, and from the deteriorating situation in America, has a big influence on us, and it should. We should be afraid of being careless and leading into a second wave. But I think we’re in a situation where we can work through trying to open things partway.

The Shut Down Switch

All this is well and good, but the fact remains: if a breakout happens in one of the bubbles, where a cluster of cases pop up together, the risk to staff and players in the bubble could quickly increase, and the league would have to take drastic action. That might include shutting down a team. It might include shutting down the league. This is not an easy choice for the league to make, but that has to be a condition of this, as Zach Binney writes in the article I linked earlier. If the league loses control of the level of risk in a bubble, that’s it. Show’s over.

Both the union and the league can instigate the process to say the risk has become unacceptable, and that it needs to be stopped. I hope it’s not going to reach that point, but it might, and it’s incumbent on both of them to react if it does.

The NHL has often been pretty bad about player safety. The baseline risk of just playing hockey is something we’re all already trying to make our peace with, and the league’s efforts to assist with it have been dubious and, at times in the concussion lawsuit, worse. The NHL’s Return To Play plan seems to me like a legitimate effort to manage the risks being taken on, and one that I hope has a good chance of success. Most of the player’s union voted to support it, and it looks like the vast majority of players are going to opt in. They have financial incentives to do it, obviously, but when I look at this collective level of risk that they’re choosing to take on, right now it’s not at the level where I think it’s too disproportionate for me to accept that choice.

So Are You Okay With This?

I don’t blame anyone who says that they can’t go along. If you can’t watch the returned NHL with a clean conscience, then you shouldn’t and I don’t think you’re silly or alarmist for feeling that way. I also understand that sports seem frivolous with all the dangerous and horrifying things going on in the world.

But ultimately I think sports might help a little with that. As hokey as this sounds, and as slow and mismanaged as the NHL can be at times, it’s worth something to us in terms of excitement and community. If nothing else it gives us something to do and cheer for in between dealing with the world being on fire. I think the NHL has a legitimate interest in returning, in addition to their obvious reason for doing it (money, which is why they exist at all.)

So if the situation stays under control, I’d just as soon watch some hockey.