Pro Sports Must Resume; Society Needs It at This Time

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


June 08, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. A big issue, as the weather gets warmer in many parts of the United States, is whether sports should reopen.

There are many proposals flying around to bring back Major League Baseball in an abbreviated schedule. The NHL and the NBA keep talking about whether they want to resume their seasons and finish off with playoffs. Around the world, the Bundesliga in Germany is opening, and many other countries hope to restore sports for their nations as well.

In thinking about this, we have the classic tradeoff. What's the benefit of permitting sports to reopen? What's the downside in terms of the risks that reopening may pose to athletes, to the communities that would have to support these events, and to the public?

I think it's pretty clear that there's a difference among professional sports, college sports, and high school sports. We have amateurs in high school, and nominally, we have amateurs in college. I would say that if the colleges are not open and functioning, complete with dormitories and the regular activities, I'd be pretty dubious about opening up college sports.

You're asking students to do things to play sports where they might be at risk, where they're not getting paid, where they would only be playing the sport without the school functioning. It would highlight, if you will, some of the hypocrisy about the way major college sports—and in this case, it would probably be football—really claim to be an amateur activity.

If we brought it back without the rest of college and university life accompanying that, I think it would highlight the fact that we really think that these are professional teams rather than amateur teams. I don't favor bringing back college sports in a big way. However, we can talk about club sports, workouts, and demonstration games.

But to come back to the key issue: Are sports essential? I think this is an interesting question and I might surprise you where I come down on this, because I think the answer is yes.

I think that, just like we have nurses, first responders, people who supply us with our food, people who drive our buses and subways, and many other important vital aspects that allow us to continue to live, sports play a role in mental health in keeping morale going for things like trying to continue quarantine or isolation. I think athletes act as role models. If they can do things like wear masks or maintain social distancing, that will set an example for others.

I'm going to argue that sports play an essential role—not because of the economics. I actually don't think they have a huge economic impact overall on the American economy. Bringing them back isn't going to restore that many jobs. Certainly, there are people who make a living playing sports, selling things at sports, coaching, training athletes, and so on.

I'm going to argue that it's basically for mental health. I think that is an important aspect of what we're going through. I think that sports at the professional level, should they resume, would help.

If that's true, then the question is how to do it. The issue here has to be player safety first and then public safety. On the public safety side, I'm afraid I don't see much of a possibility for fans in mass gatherings being around sports if there is active infection.

We know from Italy that they had a huge outbreak when they had a soccer match in northern Italy. It was an incubator for the virus and spread all over Italy and then back to France. We can't afford that kind of mass gathering where people are right next to each other, breathing on each other, with no hygiene involved in what's going on. So I'm afraid there will be no fans.

For the athletes, it's testing. If we can get tests to them and they can be tested frequently, I think you could have modified professional sports. They will need to isolate team members, test them frequently, and test the support personnel, including the camera people who may come to televise these events. I think testing is the root.

The ethics question becomes, would we take testing away from people who might otherwise need it and give it to athletes? If I'm right and sports are considered somewhat of an essential activity, then moving some testing in that direction wouldn't be so unjust.

I think professional sports teams can also throw resources behind making more tests and getting more tests available overall for everyone. I think there might be a net benefit here in terms of availability of testing if they were to return and if they took on the burden seriously of expanding testing for everyone.

The last issue will be what to do if there's an outbreak. You need a policy. Would one case shut the whole thing down? Would one hospitalization shut the whole thing down? I'm going to argue that we better be prepared for if someone were to go to the hospital, sick with COVID-19, I think the experiment in sports would end not because of policy, but because I think the players will abandon it.

There's hesitancy on the part of athletes. I've been talking to some professional athletes about their views about coming back. They'll do it if they're safe, but if somebody gets really sick—not only tests positive but actually ends up in the hospital—then I fear that that's going to be the end of the experiment.

In sum, bring sports back; grant that they play somewhat of an essential role in the mental health of our country and of many countries, and that they will help people. Don't expect to see fans at events. I'm talking mainly about professional sports because that's kind of payment for risk. I think that may be a tradeoff that can be done, but be ready to see the experiment stop if we were to really see serious illness or death.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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