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White House discusses resumption plans with US sports leaders

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There is some rising optimism of an infrastructure being in place for US sports to resume more broadly this summer, according to multiple reports of a meeting April 28 between the US federal government and major American sports entities.

USA Today and ESPN reported that members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force held a conference call with representatives and chief medical officers of 23 sports entities. Participating entities were all of the major US pro sports leagues, and several leading groups from college and amateur sports. 

Many of those sports organizations are also part of a separate panel that is advising US President Donald Trump on lifting commercial and societal restrictions amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Trump sees sports as a critical component in the overall revival of the US economy from the public health crisis. 

Safety for fans, players, and all related coaches and staff remains of utmost importance in any sort of plan to resume play. But participants on the call said the anticipated increased availability of Covid-19 testing will be a crucial step toward being able to restart activities.

“We learned that there were likely going to be a lot more tests available, both the antibody tests and point-of-contact tests, which was a good thing for all of the pro guys and colleges,” said Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, to ESPN. “[The White House] said the number of tests was going to go up dramatically in the coming months. They thought we were going to have the necessary tests to do what we needed to do.” 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert in the US, meanwhile told the New York Times that the development of broader testing may not enable some leagues to resume until 2021.

“Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything,” Fauci told the Times. “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.’”

Fauci previously said empty stadiums and quarantined players would be required to get games going this summer.

“If we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal, we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole we were in a few weeks ago,” Fauci said to The Times.

There remains no firm timetable for most major leagues to restart games, though each are actively modeling various scenarios, including many involving neutral-site competition.

Another crucial unresolved question is how to incorporate players from foreign countries given the current heavy restrictions surrounding international travel both into and out of the US. This will be a pressing issue for numerous sports including ice hockey, baseball, soccer, tennis, and golf given the prominent international presence among its players.

There have been some moves, however, to resume without attending fans. Professional Bull Riders held a competition last weekend in Oklahoma. Nascar is targeting a May 17 return in South Carolina. And the PGA Tour is planning to restart tournaments in June. 

Live sports with attending fans, meanwhile, is not surprisingly in the final stage of a four-part plan for relaxing stay-at-home restrictions in California rolled out April 28 in by state governor Gavin Newsom. That final stage, Newsom said, also relies on the development of therapeutics to deal with Covid-19. Live sports without attending fans is in the third stage, though none of the stages released by Newsom come with specific timetables to be enacted.