Epidemiologist Dr. Zachary Binney Pessimistic About Safely Conducting MLB, NFL Seasons

The return of team sports in the United States faced its first major obstacle after 21 members of the Miami Marlins — 18 players and three coaches — tested positive for the coronavirus, and the incident has exemplified the delicate nature of playing sports during a pandemic.

The outbreak has also raised questions about the NFL’s plan to conduct its upcoming season. Like MLB, the NFL opted against a bubble format and instead will play a normal schedule with regular testing of players and staff. Though the plan is a good start, medical experts are raising questions about its long-term effectiveness in preventing an outbreak among teams.

“I’m really worried about it,” epidemiologist Dr. Zachary Binney said on Glenn Clark Radio July 28. “The MLB and NFL systems are broadly similar … and that has clearly not worked for Major League Baseball. Will it work for the NFL with more people and more contact? I think there’s evidence it may not.”

In baseball’s case, the Marlins’ outbreak has thrown the season into disarray. All of Miami’s games were canceled through at least Aug. 4, while the club’s last opponent — the Philadelphia Phillies — were shut down until Aug. 3 after two team staffers tested positive for the virus. That caused an on-the-fly adjustment of schedules; the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees faced off July 29-30, while the Washington Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays didn’t play July 31-Aug. 2.

To make matters more complicated, Marlins players received news of three positive tests before their July 26 game but decided to go ahead and play anyway, per The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For Binney, a writer for Football Outsiders and NFLInjuryAnalytics.com and an incoming assistant professor of quantitative theory and methods at Emory University, that’s cause for alarm. What’s even more concerning to him, he said, is commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement that the Marlins’ outbreak is not a “nightmare” scenario.

“We don’t know what they’re saying behind the scenes, but when Rob Manfred comes out publicly and says, ‘We think the Marlins can play [just days after receiving those positive tests],’ that makes me think they’re not taking this seriously and they don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” Binney said. “If they don’t understand that, then how can you trust them to create and enforce a protocol and testing system that’s going to keep everybody safe?”

And that does not bode well for the return of football, Binney added. Both MLB and the NFL are testing every other day instead of daily, though there will be daily testing in the NFL for the first two weeks of training camp. Still, there have been delays in receiving test results in MLB. Further, both leagues are not in a bubble and require travel, while players must abide by an honor system to not partake in high-risk activities.

There are many potential loopholes in that plan, and that’s why Binney is advocating for what he calls a home-market bubble. In that system, a team would book hotels for its players and staff, and those personnel must stay isolated in the hotel except for travel to stadiums and practice facilities. It’s one of the best ways to control the spread of the virus if teams must travel, Binney said.

But despite that, Binney understands the difficulties of staying in a bubble and gets why many players are discouraged by the idea.

“A bubble stinks. It’s really hard emotionally, psychologically, socially. It’s expensive, it’s logistically really difficult,” he said.

Still, the bubble seems to be the most effective way to conduct sports in the pandemic short of canceling them outright. The NWSL recently concluded its bubbled tournament in Utah and recorded no positive tests throughout the four-week slate of games, while the NHL, NBA and MLS reported no positive tests in their most recent round of testing.

Binney said a non-bubble option — like the MLB and NFL are pursuing — would have been more possible if the United States had responded more quickly to the virus from the start. Now, any attempt to do so will face serious roadblocks.

“If we’re going to bring sports back here, it’s going to be more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous,” Binney said.

For more from Binney, listen to the full interview here:

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