Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for National Institutes for Health, has been asked multiple times about the short-term future of professional sports in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
His answer: "The virus will make the decision for us."
The NFL seemingly has time on its side with games not scheduled until September and the possibility of widespread antigen testing available by late summer. Fauci told NBC Sports' Peter King that it's "feasible" for players who test negative to play against each other in an empty stadium. But Fauci is quick to point out that the test only shows that a person is negative when the test is administered.
Given the close proximity of players, and blocking and tackling, and the sweat, Fauci was asked if football might have some challenges not inherent in other sports with less physical contact.
“Sweat does not do it,” Fauci told King. “This is a respiratory virus, so it’s going to be spread by shedding virus. The problem with virus shedding is that if I have it in my nasal pharynx, and it sheds and I wipe my hand against my nose – now it’s on my hand. You see, then I touch my chest or my thigh, then it’s on my chest or my thigh for at least a few hours. Sweat as such won’t transmit it.
"But if people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that’s the perfect setup for spreading. I would think that if there is an infected football player on the field—a middle linebacker, a tackle, whoever it is – as soon as they hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person.
“If you really want to be in a situation where you want to be absolutely certain, you’d test all the players before the game. And you say, 'Those who are infected: Sorry, you’re sidelined. Those who are free: Get in there and play.'”
The only way to be 100% certain, though, is to test every day, and that's not practical, Fauci said.
“I think it’s feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium,” Fauci said. “Is it guaranteed? No way . . . There will be virus out there and you will know your players are negative at the time they step onto the field. You’re not endangering . . . Also, if the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart."
Fauci has said he expects the virus to return, but how society deals with the virus will determine how widespread another wave could be.
“As for the football season and what the fall is going to be: It will be entirely dependent on the effectiveness with which we as a society respond to the inevitable outbreak that will occur," he said.
The other element in play here is, what happens if the star player tests positive Saturday night. Does that mean he immediately goes to quarantine for 14 days? And how many of his teammates could then test positive? What if a large portion of a team were unable to play for two weeks?
There are more questions than answers. Neither Fauci nor anyone else can be certain what will happen.