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With Coronavirus Cases And Questions Increasing, Can Sports Really Return In 2020?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- It's been a long time since sports functioned normally. A very long time.

We've all been patient. We've all looked forward to the day when sports return in whatever capacity they can. We've dissected and examined all of the plans -- official and otherwise -- from every league to find some silver lining to this most unfortunate period of American history.

Surely, we all want our sports back. Just as surely, sports leagues want to come back.

Yet here in late June, does it really feel like the world of sports has any handle on this virus whatsoever?

On this date, in the summer of 2020, does it look like sports leagues have a workable set of protocols in place to ensure that games can actually be played safely?

After the developments from recent weeks -- and particularly last Friday -- it's awfully difficult to have any level of confidence.

Consider that:

--MLB has had 40 players and staff test positive for COVID-19 in the past week. The Phillies and Blue Jays have shut down their facilities in Florida, and the Giants closed down their facility in Arizona, despite those facilities not even officially being open in the first place. The Phillies had five players and three staff members test positive.

--The Tampa Bay Lightning had to close their practice facility after three players and two staff members tested positive for COVID. The Lightning had been partaking in Phase 2 of the NHL's reopening plan, which called for small group workouts. Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthew also tested positive, while the Bruins and Penguins have had confirmed cases as well.

--Four total players from the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans tested positive for COVID-19, including star running back Ezekiel Elliott. Two players from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tested positive, as did a Tampa assistant coach. A 49ers player who had been participating in group workouts in Nashville tested positive as well.

--The NFLPA has advised all players to stop participating in group workouts and to not partake in any voluntary joint practices until training camp opens. Some owners are starting to express their desire to push the NFL season to a later date.

--In the NCAA, 23 members of Clemson's football team tested positive. At LSU, "at least" 30 football players are in isolation for either testing positive or for having had contact with someone who tested positive. The University of Houston shut down all voluntary workouts after six symptomatic athletes tested positive. Over the University of Texas, 13 football players tested positive, with 10 more players in isolation. Rutgers also had two football players test positive, with three more players going into quarantine.

--Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned that sports being played in October and November run a real risk of being unable to happen at all, due to the so-called "second wave" hitting the country hard.

--PGA golfer Nick Watney got sent home from the RBC Heritage on Friday after testing positive for COVID-19. Thus far, no other golfers have caught the virus, though he did travel with Sergio Garcia while interacting with fellow golfers at the course.

--In Florida, where the NBA and MLS plan to play this summer, positive COVID-19 tests are reaching daily highs as the virus spikes. Washington's David Bertans has already decided that he won't be participating in the NBA's season/postseason, in order to avoid risk as he enters free agency. He surely won't be the last player to make such a choice, as reports have stated that players and the league itself are concerned about the situation in Florida.

--Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh reacted to the proposed social distancing protocols by saying, "It's impossible what they're asking us to do. Humanly impossible." Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay reacted by saying, "We're gonna social distance, but we play football? It's really hard for me to understand all this. I don't get it. I really don't."

--Baseball players and owners can't even come to an agreement on salary and scheduling. If they somehow manage to resolve that matter, they'll have to work in expedited fashion to not only draw up a schedule but also to devise protocols for travel, for games, and for training. And they'll need to get the union to agree to all of those protocols.

The solution for all those cases is the same as it was in March: Shut everything down, quarantine, stay home, hope for the best. In the middle of an actual sports calendar, that's obviously not going to work for anybody.

Containing the spread will also be a nearly impossible task, as even with the most thorough plans for social distancing, players will have to cross paths in locker rooms, on the field/ice (especially in full-contact sports), and on the bench. One positive test from one team will lead to a quarantine of all of his teammates and every team he's come into contact with, just as it happened in the NBA with Rudy Gobert back in March. The New Orleans Pelicans refused to even take the court because one of the assigned referees for their game had worked in a game involving Gobert.

That solution, such as it is, remains the exact same three months later. And it's just not conducive to sports seasons taking place.

The recovery process -- that is, having a player test positive and then return to play -- also remains a complete unknown, as there's still much more unknown than known by scientists and doctors about the coronavirus.

The picture really does look bleak at this point, but it doesn't seem like many people are publicly talking about it that way.

The McCourty twins did speak up this week on the mountain of challenges facing the NFL if it wants to actually play football games this year.

"Figuring out football, to me, seems to be the hardest thing right now," Devin McCourty said. "We hope, but I don't know if we'll figure it out, honestly."

Jason McCourty added: "When you think about the future, if it's hard for 10 guys just to get together to do little passing drills or anything of that nature, to think about somewhere between 53 and 90 guys in a training camp, it's going to be insane. So I don't know how that's going to turn out."

The McCourtys don't know how leagues will make sports happen, and the leagues themselves don't actually know either.

We'd all love to have sports back. Maybe things will change for the better in the coming month. Perhaps this will all end up becoming a needless exercise in worrying.

But right now, at this precise moment, it feels like we're all just kind of whistling past the graveyard, ignoring an inconvenient reality that doesn't seem to really care what anybody wants.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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