On Tuesday, the 644th day of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two years after it began ravaging American life, more than 100 players in the nation’s two biggest sports leagues were sidelined by the virus.
Thirty-six NFL players tested positive on Monday. Dozens more joined them Tuesday, including eight Cleveland Browns. In the NBA, meanwhile, 10 Chicago Bulls and seven Brooklyn Nets are in the league’s health and safety protocols. Practices are being canceled. Team facilities are being closed. Enhanced protocols are being considered. The NBA, NHL and English Premier League have postponed games this week. Some executives reportedly feel that the worst is yet to come.
It’s not quite clear why the virus has suddenly swept through multiple sports leagues on multiple continents. U.S. case counts are relatively high, but still below previous peaks. There are theories among experts and non-experts — The Omicron variant? Thanksgiving gatherings? Waning vaccine protection? — but they all dodge the elephant in the room, the exasperated question that fatigued fans can’t help but ask:
Why, 21 months into the pandemic, with vaccines widely available, is COVID-19 shelving more players than it did pre-vaccine, or ever before?
The answer is that leagues aren’t testing enough. Or it’s that they’re testing too much.
It’s that leagues have relaxed protocols and decreased testing frequency, allowing isolated cases to turn into clusters. Or it’s that they continue to test young, healthy, asymptomatic, vaccinated athletes, which they have little reason to do anymore.
Those contrasting views have bubbled up again as the virus has spread through locker rooms this month. The first view is the conventional one that most medical experts would espouse. The second is the provocative one: Why can’t athletes play through mild cases of COVID-19? Why are leagues still testing players at all?
“It’s a really, really good question, and one I’ve struggled with myself,” Zach…