AP Exclusive: Athletes wary about virus, testing upon return
Chris Thompson is an NFL running back. He also is the father of a 4-month-old daughter, Kali. Guess which of those facts matters more to him when he ponders eventually returning to work amid a pandemic.
“If I go practice or play and I come back home with the virus ... that’s my biggest worry,” said Thompson, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars this month after seven seasons with the Washington Redskins.
“We’re not robots out there,” he said. “People out there are saying, ‘Hey, with all that’s going on, we need sports back in our lives to get our minds off everything.’ That’s all good. But you’ve got to think about this, too: When we start back in training camp, you’re putting 90 guys from 90 different places all together ... and it happens a lot that a lot of us get sick.”
These are the sorts of thoughts those who play the games that people love to watch, discuss and gamble on are grappling with as lockdowns brought about by the coronavirus outbreak begin to ease and various sports resume competition — NASCAR and UFC, for example — or attempt to figure out how to, such as Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL.
Reporters from The Associated Press spoke to more than two dozen athletes from around the globe — representing seven countries and 11 sports — to get a sense of how concerned or confident they are about resuming competition. What emerged, above all, was a sense that they are going through the very same sort of calculus that much of the rest of society is: What is safe nowadays? How do I, and my family, stay healthy, especially with no cure or vaccine yet?
“There’s certainly an element of the unknown,” New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick said. “This has not been studied all that long still, even thought it feels like an eternity some days.”
Or as Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has won nine Grand Slam tennis doubles titles, explained: “It’s sort of even tough to gauge what I should be worried about.”
Mattek-Sands did say she thinks those in charge of her sport will do their best to protect participants, which matched the general consensus among those the AP interviewed.
They also consider the optics.
“You’d have these billionaire (team) owners that are probably social distancing in their boxes, while you have guys on the field playing a game with no fans,” said Kelvin Beachum, an NFL free agent. “I think that would be very, very awkward.”
Nearly unanimous was a wariness about enough COVID-19 testing — what types, how many, how often — and other precautions (contact tracing, for example) that leagues, unions and governing bodies might institute as they develop protocols.
Most echoed Thompson’s sentiment that “we should have constant testing,” but there was hesitation about too many nasal swabs or blood samples.
“If the tests don’t come back for a couple of days and whatnot, how does that really work?” said two-time Olympic champion ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin. “It’s good to know if you test positive or negative. But if we’re talking about being tested today so we can race tomorrow, but the results don’t come back for two days, it doesn’t really help.”
Ryan Zimmerman, a member of the World Series champion Washington Nationals, was adamant: “Someone is going to need to be able to assure us that the testing put forward will be able to catch this before it can cause some sort of outbreak among people in close quarters.”
Some wondered whether they would agree to get a seasonal flu shot if required, the way it was in Australian rugby. Two athletes said they never get seasonal flu vaccines — one also didn’t want recommended shots before a recent trip to Africa — and aren’t inclined to change that.
Others weren’t sure they would agree to get a COVID-19 vaccine if mandated by a league.
“I think it would stop at some sort of vaccine to play,” St. Louis Cardinals All-Star shortstop Paul DeJong said. “There is a fine line between what (MLB) can do to protect us and some things they can do to kind of exert power over us.”
For those in sports such as golf or tennis that require international travel, there are questions about how easy it will be to hop from country to country — and how easy it’ll be to avoid catching or spreading the virus.
“You are so concerned that you don’t want to be the cause of somebody else’s ... death,” said Padraig Harrington, a three-time major golf champion from Ireland. “Traveling, you have the fear that you are going to get it — and you still maintain that fear of passing it on to someone who is vulnerable.”
He mentioned his 80-year-old mother, but the list goes beyond athletes’ relatives: coaches, training staff, officials, arena workers and, if there are any, spectators. Plus those folks’ families.
“The pressure to ‘get back out there’ makes it clear,” Olympic long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta said, “that athletes aren’t necessarily being seen as the humans they are, with the families they have.”
AP Sports Writers contributing to this report: Tales Azzoni in Madrid; Steve Douglas in Sundsvall, Sweden; Dan Gelston in Philadelphia; Pat Graham in Denver; Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida; Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia; Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Oregon; John Pye in Brisbane, Australia; Tim Reynolds in Miami; Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri; Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York; Stephen Whyno in Washington.