(First of three parts)
There was a lot of excitement everywhere when sports leagues started crawling out of the shadows of a crippling pandemic. League officials were optimistic of setting up an environment where athletes can perform safely, with strict health protocols in place. Fans became hopeful, eager to get their sporting fix even if they have to do so from television screens, far away from heavily quarantined venues.
All that enthusiasm bubbled to the surface despite the medical world unable to offer a vaccine against the coronavirus (COVID-19) infection that shuttered the sporting scene.
The athletes would like to express their feelings, too.
“The pressure to ‘get back out there’ makes it clear,” Olympic long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta told The Associated Press (AP), “that athletes aren’t necessarily being seen as the humans they are, with the families they have.”
There is a sense of hesitation globally about returning to action too soon, with several athletes concerned about what qualifies as safe and how do they stay healthy and protect their families especially with no cure in sight.
“There’s certainly an element of the unknown,” hockey standout and New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick told AP. “This has not been studied all that long still, even thought it feels like an eternity some days.”
But that hesitation does not reflect locally: In a survey conducted by the Inquirer, a majority of athletes polled (64 percent) said they were willing to resume playing even without the protection a vaccine will provide.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing in the Olympics,” said boxer Nesthy Petecio, the reigning world women’s featherweight champion. Foiled in her first attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Petecio is hoping to book her ticket through a wild-card qualifier. “I don’t care what obstacle is there, if there’s a last chance for me to make the Olympics, I’ll take it.”
Mary Joy Baron, one of the country’s most feared middle blockers who has stamped her mark both in the UAAP and the Philippine Superliga (PSL), is aware of the health risks involved but trusts that any return to competition means all safety concerns had been tackled thoroughly.
“If the league opens, I would be willing to play given that there’s still no COVID-19 vaccine yet,” Baron told the Inquirer. “I know it’s a risk but I believe if the PSL decides to open, they will have strict measures to be implemented for the safety of everyone.”
Trust in the league is also the reason why an overwhelming number of players in the PBA are willing to risk playing without a vaccine.
“I feel throughout these last two months, the league especially commissioner Willie [Marcial] and our bosses have been very open to us on their plans,” Barangay Ginebra veteran guard LA Tenorio told the Inquirer. “They’ve also been consulting the players so we put our full trust in them with their decisions.”
The PBA has been the most aggressive local league in plotting a return to action, but at the same time has been very cautious. Marcial has said they will be willing to resume the interrupted 45th season of the league even minus a vaccine, confident that his team has enough health protocols and guidelines to construct a “bubble environment” inside, which the PBA can safely stage games.
“I understand how difficult it is for our bosses and commissioner Willie to make these decisions,” said Magnolia veteran forward Marc Pingris. “We know that they will consider so many things. But I also believe they will put a priority on our health and safety.”
But to paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, even the best laid plans go awry. And that possibility is why there is a sense of hesitation among some athletes in the country—and a lot around the world—about returning to action without the protection of a vaccine.
“It’s a tough question because there are so many factors to be considered,” said Denden Lazaro-Revilla. The national team libero who steered Petron to several PSL titles before moving back to the Premier Volleyball League via Choco Mucho was a medical student before giving volleyball a second chance in 2016.
“I’m totally a paranoid person,” she told the Inquirer. “Plus I’m high risk because of my asthma. On the other hand, if strict preventive measures and protocols are set by the teams and the league, that would be great.
“However, I feel like it’s still trial and error,” she said. “There’s still a chance someone will contract the virus.”
And it’s no ordinary virus, with deaths running to hundreds of thousands in the world. It’s a point that concerns San Miguel Beer guard Chris Ross who, if he had a choice, would play only when a vaccine is available.
“I don’t think it’s smart at the moment,” Ross, a two-time Finals MVP, said. “I don’t understand the rush to play when it’s people’s lives we are talking about.”
NFL running back Chris Thompson made it clear to AP that when weighing the pros and cons of returning to the field during this pandemic, his top-most consideration is his 4-month-old daughter, Kali.
“If I go practice or play and I come back home with the virus … that’s my biggest worry,” Thompson, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars this month after seven seasons with the Washington Redskins, told AP.
“We’re not robots out there,” he added. “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.”
Reporters from AP 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?
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.
“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.”
That sense of uncertainty only highlights the stark ray of gung-ho readiness hereabouts.
“I am in favor of anything that will reopen our leagues,” said Sta. Lucia star Mika Reyes. “Because the PSL would mean work for us athletes, marketing and the team owners and entertainment for the volleyball fans.” —with a report from AP
(What qualifies as safe? To be continued tomorrow)
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