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Sports, science, and ethics in the time of coronavirus

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We all want to watch sports again, but is it ethical to use massive numbers of tests just for entertainment purposes? Will it even be safe to play again in the coming months?

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Utah vs Texas Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Seventeen days ago, the Texas Longhorns were supposed to take the field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in front of tens of thousands of burnt orange faithful for the annual Orange-White game, a spring celebration for the football-crazy state.

Instead, the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancelation after much of the nation went into a lockdown that is only now, after nearly two months, beginning to transition into more businesses reopening.

Those openings come even as epidemiologists and public-health experts warn about the potential consequences due to an inadequate ability to test, trace, and isolate, the predominant course of recommended action to reduce infections until a vaccine is available.

Meanwhile, American sports are not as close to resuming as some global counterparts — South Korea, which reported its first case on the same day as the United States, is already playing baseball again without fans and the Premier League is set to restart play on June 1 even though the number of cases is still rising in the United Kingdom. Some English footballers are ready to get back on the pitch, but others don’t believe it’s safe.

As the professional leagues and colleges and universities around the country create plans to restart sports in the United States, several critical factors are now at the forefront of those efforts.

The first critical factor is the nature of the sport in question.

Golf courses, for instance, are reasonably safe because practicing the necessary social distancing to reduce the likelihood of transmission between players is a much more achievable goal than in most other sports. Many courses are open across the country and the PGA is scheduled to return next month.

Likewise, tennis does not include any physical contact and could be one of the early professional sports to start up once again.

Football, however, not only features an incredibly large number of players on each team, but also the type of consistent contact and proximity that could quickly spread the virus during a game, as described by the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“Sweat does not do it,” Fauci said. “This is a respiratory virus, so it’s going to be spread by shedding virus. The problem with virus shedding is that if I have it in my nasal pharynx, and it sheds and I wipe my hand against my nose — now it’s on my hand. You see, then I touch my chest or my thigh, then it’s on my chest or my thigh for at least a few hours. Sweat as such won’t transmit it. But if people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that’s the perfect set up for spreading. I would think that if there is an infected football player on the field — a middle linebacker, a tackle, whoever it is it — as soon as they hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person.”

The bottom line is that while young athletes are not at high risk of dying from COVID-19, it’s still too early to determine whether there are significant long-term health consequences for those who develop the disease or even for those who are asymptomatic. Doctors already have concerns about “lung scarring, heart damage, and neurological and mental health effects” from the coronavirus. There may be male infertility issues, too.

Beyond the athletes, though, many coaches, support personnel, and other essential workers on campus are in the age range with high rates of mortality. Some of the best coaches in college basketball will face difficult decisions this year about whether to risk their lives for their chosen profession.

How much risk is acceptable for athletes and those they will interact with during the week, including trainers and nutritionists?

The second critical factor is the availability of tests.

After the CDC botched its rollout of tests in the United States and the private sector was limited by restrictive FDA regulations that slowed development, the country fell behind in mitigating the spread of the disease because of those testing shortages.

Fortunately, testing has now ramped up to roughly 250,000 on most days and set a record of close to 400,000 tests on Monday.

That’s important because when it comes to sports like college football, it’s going to take a significant number of tests in order to play every week — there are 85 scholarship players on each team, 10 assistant coaches, and a host of trainers and support personnel, as well as the officials and other necessary gameday personnel. In soccer, the guess for essential staff is 150 to 200 people.

So a single football game could require roughly 400 tests and the regular season for the FBS would require more than 600,000 tests. Add in other levels of football and the numbers quickly climb into the millions. Consider that the country has conducted fewer than 10 million tests so far.

With efforts to ramp up testing at the state level thanks to federal funding, the national landscape in that regard will hopefully look much different months from now, but there are still emerging ethical concerns about using that much capacity just to play sports.

Recall that as the coronavirus started to spread in the United States, professional sports teams were able to secure private testing at a time when many people with symptoms weren’t able to get tests. There’s enough systemic inequality in our society without sports playing a role in exacerbating them.

If any one of those millions of tests needed to play football this year keeps one frontline worker or other essential worker or anyone else from using that test instead, would playing sports be worth it?

The other issue is the accuracy of tests. In the White House, for instance, officials are largely using the ID Now rapid testing kit that returns results in less than 15 minutes. The tradeoff there is speed for accuracy — the test produces false negatives in the range of 15 percent.

In order to play sports again, the governing bodies will have to ensure that the tests acquired are more accurate than what the White House is mostly utilizing right now. With a host of tests coming from different parts of the private sector, that’s not a guarantee.

The pandemic is also exposing proximate concerns about college athletics — while the NCAA is finally moving to allow student-athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness, would it produce legal liability to have student-athletes on campus if the other students are not?

“Our players are students. If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said less than a month ago, according to CBSSports.com.

”Our message was, we need to get universities and colleges back open, that we were education-based programs, and we weren’t going to have sports until we had something closer to normal college going on.”

Again, that’s not about moral purity — it’s about money and the possibility of losing a lot of it if the NCAA’s amateurism model legally exposes itself as the fraud that it is.

And the money of it all is coming into more stark relief as athletic programs across the country cut sports. Athletic departments need football to happen at some point in the next year and will face the same financial motivations causing states to risk the lives of their citizens in the name of the economy.

Consider that Bowlsby is not entirely in agreement with NCAA president Mark Emmert. According to Emmert, school presidents believe that students must be on campus to have sports, but Bowlsby thinks that online classes would satisfy that requirement.

“The thing that can’t happen is a university can’t decide to not have a fall semester, but they still bring student-athletes back,” Bowlsby said. “At that point they aren’t student-athletes. We need to be pursuing our education. If the new normal is online or some combination of online or in-person, I think that’s a satisfactory environment.”

So, regardless of all the health concerns, simply getting every stakeholder in agreement about how college sports would operate will be a difficult task for Emmert.

But those disagreements are the relatively typical squabbling in an atypical time — the most important issues surround protecting everyone involved and ensuring that a form of entertainment doesn’t jeopardize other people’s health by denying them access to tests.

We all want sports to return — in the middle of unprecedented mass unemployment, my livelihood depends on it — but that return can’t come at the cost of people’s lives, directly or indirectly.

Editor’s note: I’m shutting down the comments because this isn’t InfoWars.