The Latest in Sports and COVID-19:U.S. Speedskating Trials Going Without Fans – SportsTravel

The coronavirus outbreak has forced difficult decisions for the sports-event industry. As events come back online and as destinations, venues and event organizers determine capacity limits for fans along with health and safety protocols for their events, here is a look at where things stand.

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OLYMPICS: U.S. Speedskating Trials Going Without Fans

Posted: Monday, January 3

The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for long-track speedskating, starting this week in Milwaukee, will be held without fans in attendance after “early results from its testing of athletes and the high COVID infection rates in Milwaukee,” the host venue said in an email on Sunday.

“All of us, including ticket holders and Pettit staff, who have worked tirelessly to prepare the venue, plus volunteers, are very disappointed with this change but respect right of USOPC and US Speedskating to make such a decision in order to give the best chance for athletes to compete safely in the Trials and fulfill their dreams to compete for a spot on the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team,” the Pettit Center said in an email published Sunday afternoon.

“It’s vital that we continue to keep a strong focus on the health and welfare of our athletes,” said US Speedskating Executive Director Ted Morris on Monday. “Our ability to create a competition bubble provides us with the best situation to protect our athletes while providing them with the opportunity to qualify for the Beijing team at the Olympic Trials. We appreciate the understanding of parents, fans and media so that we can provide the best environment possible for our athletes.”

The venue said those who have already bought tickets will be processed refunds. “An alternative is to ask you to make your ticket purchase a charitable donation to Pettit Center to help offset the costs we have incurred,” said Randy Dean, executive director of the Pettit Center. “We would be grateful for such consideration.”

The short-track trials were held recently at the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City, Utah, with fans in attendance.

“On behalf of the Pettit Center, I thank you for your understanding and special consideration,” Dean said. “This is the most difficult action I have had to take in my thirteen years as Executive Director.”

The Beijing Olympics open February 4. While the CDC said last week that the isolation period for those who have tested positive for COVID but are asymptomatic should be shortened to five days from 10, the Beijing organizers have so far not changed its policy.

To enter China, all participants must twice test negative within 96 hours of leaving for Beijing regardless of if they have recently tested positive but since recovered from COVID. In Beijing’s playbook for athletes, for a question if one of two pre-departure tests comes back positive and the other negative, organizers write: “Any positive PCR test of COVID-19 within 96 hours of the departure of your flight to China will prevent you from traveling to China.”

Unless Beijing organizers modify its policy, any athlete who contracts COVID between now and the start of the Games could be at risk of not being allowed in China, a scenario that USOPC Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Finnoff told the Wall Street Journal could happen.

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told the Journal in the same story that “I do think China needs to revisit its COVID-zero policy because that’s not a sustainable approach. It’s one that’s going to be overcome by events pretty quickly.”

The Deputy Director of Epidemic Prevention and Control Office of Beijing Winter Olympic Organizing Committee, Huang Chun, said before Christmas that China is prepared for possible COVID inside the Games’ bubble, admitting the Games could bring “COVID-19 cases or small clusters of infections.”

Huang said should somebody test positive, they would be sent to either a hospital or isolation facility depending on if a person has symptoms. For those with symptoms, they would be released after testing negative twice within a 24-hour period along with having a normal body temperature and breathing pattern. Asymptomatic patients would be tested every 24 hours in an isolation facility and released if they present negative results twice within 24 hours.

SWIMMING: Opening USA Swimming Event of Year Postponed

Posted: Monday, January 3

USA Swimming has announced that it will cancel its first TYR Pro Swim Series event of the year scheduled for Knoxville, Tennessee, from January 12-15.

“With the new Olympic quadrennial only just beginning and the current COVID-19 conditions across the country, USA Swimming, with the support of event host Tennessee Aquatics and Visit Knoxville, made the decision to prioritize the health and safety of the athletes, staff and event volunteers,” the NGB said in a statement on Monday.
The start to the national-level season will now begin in March with the currently scheduled TYR Pro Swim Series in Des Moines, Iowa.

TENNIS: Djokovic still uncertain over Australian Open

Posted: Monday, January 3

Novak Djokovic may still skip the first Grand Slam of the season — and a chance to break the all-time Grand Slam singles record — over his lack of being vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Australian Open mandates vaccination for all competing players, although Australian Open chief Craig Tiley said several unvaccinated players have been granted exemptions to play so far. He did not comment on if Djokovic has asked for an exemption, with Djokovic repeatedly refusing to reveal his vaccination status after months of avoiding the questions and being known to have an anti-vaccine stance.

“Every athlete coming into Australia has to be vaccinated and show proof of that, or has to have made application from a medical exemption,” Tiley told Australian media over the weekend. “In the case of tennis players, that’s far more rigorous than anyone coming into Australia applying for a medical exemption. There are two medical panels that assess any application, and they assess it in a blind way. They don’t know who the applicant is. Against the guidelines, an exemption gets granted or not. The reason for granting the exemption remains private, between the panel and the applicant.”

Tiley added “Novak’s made it clear that he wouldn’t disclose his medical conditions, or whether or not he’s vaccinated. It’s his choice to do that. There’s quite a bit to play out and it will play out in the coming days.”

All spectators will have to show proof of being fully vaccinated at the first Grand Slam of the season as well.

NFL: Wentz, Cousins Show Dangers of Being Unvaccinated

Posted: Friday, December 31

While the NFL has decided to reduce the isolation time for asymptomatic players, teams around the league are taking different approaches to finish the regular season without any expanded outbreaks to go with the hundreds of players who have already tested positive for COVID-19 this month.

Green Bay, Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago and New Orleans have played without starting quarterbacks due to COVID-19 this season. The New York Jets and Cleveland Browns have both played games without their head coaches as well.

The NFL has not canceled games during the pandemic but has rescheduled multiple games, including three games two weeks ago. The league has had 521 players go onto the COVID list this month; it had 428 players all of last season.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) throws during a NFL training camp Friday, July 30, 2021, in Eagan, Minn. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

With that as the backdrop, the league and NFL Players Association revised protocols on Tuesday, reducing isolation time for players who test positive and are asymptomatic, including unvaccinated players, to five days. The league also implemented restrictions on players eating together, limited number of occupants in the weight room to 15, and is requiring masks be worn by all players and staff indoors.

The Denver Broncos, who started a wide receiver at quarterback last season due to COVID-19, are isolating practice squad quarterback Anthony Gordon. The Philadelphia Eagles, in the midst of a playoff race, have taken the step of having quarterbacks in separate rooms while meeting virtually in the team facility to keep from having anybody go on the COVID list.

“We’re going to definitely make even more adjustments than what we need to just keep everybody safe,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “The quarterbacks will be in separate rooms. We’re going to be even more safe with them being in separate rooms.”

Jalen Hurts has been the Eagles’ starter for most of the season but Gardner Minshew has played in three games as well.

“I definitely think there’s a point where as a leader you want to try and keep things together as much as you can,” Hurts said. “You understand you have a group full of grown men who make grown-men decisions, but I definitely encourage everybody to stay safe, be responsible and take precautions in this thing. You can live with it and be OK if you knew you took precaution and did everything you could.”

Hurts took over as the starting QB this season for good after the Eagles traded Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. Wentz missed part of the preseason as a close contact who tested positive and this week went back on the COVID list after testing positive himself. Wentz, who is unvaccinated, could still play on Sunday thanks to the new CDC guidelines should he prove he is asymptomatic or demonstrates his symptoms are improving under the new protocols.

If Wentz can’t play, rookie Sam Ehlinger will start against the Raiders. Wentz was activated from the COVID list on Saturday morning.

“It’s a personal decision for me and my family,” Wentz said in September. “I respect everybody else’s decision, and I just ask that everybody does the same for me. … That’s just where I’m at on it and with the protocols and everything the way they are, really for us, it’s about understanding them clearly and making sure that we are dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s.”

The Colts, winners of eight of their past 10 games, can lock up a playoff spot with a victory over the Raiders on Sunday. Only one game separates the fifth and 11th seed in the AFC.

“This is what we prepare for, for hitting adversity like this, things you don’t expect but this is probably in the category of something that we could expect and that it would just be a matter of time before it was going to hit us,” Colts coach Frank Reich said.

And then Friday morning brought the news of another starting quarterback who will miss a game this weekend after testing positive: Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, also famously unvaccinated and having missed part of the preseason. Cousins also bizarrely suggested the Vikings quarterbacks would have position meetings outside all season — the current temperature on Friday morning in Minneapolis was near zero and Saturday’s high is scheduled to be 1 degree.

NFL Schedule
All Times Eastern
Sunday’s Games
L.A. Rams at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Atlanta at Buffalo, 1 p.m. (fans must show proof of vaccination to attend)
N.Y. Giants at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Kansas City at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Las Vegas at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Jacksonville at New England, 1 p.m.
Tampa Bay at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.
Miami at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Philadelphia at Washington, 1 p.m.
Denver at L.A. Chargers, 4:05 p.m. (fans must show proof of vaccination or negative test to attend)
Houston at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Arizona at Dallas, 4:25 p.m.
Carolina at New Orleans, 4:25 p.m.
Detroit at Seattle, 4:25 p.m. (fans must show proof of vaccination or negative test to attend)
Minnesota at Green Bay, 8:20 p.m.
Monday’s Game
Cleveland at Pittsburgh, 8:15 p.m.

SPORTS: Raptors, Maple Leafs Go Without Home Fans

The Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs will play without home fans for at least the next three weeks after the province of Ontario announced indoor crowd restrictions.
The province announced indoor capacity on Thursday for venues including Scotiabank Arena to either 1,000 people or 50 percent capacity, depending on which one was lower.

The last Montreal Canadiens home game before the NHL paused its season on the week of Christmas was held without home fans. The NHL has since resumed its season but has postponed four Montreal home games as well as two Winnipeg home games and one home game for Toronto, Ottawa and Calgray because of COVID-19 attendance restrictions in those cities.

The league says the home games will be moved to yet-to-be-determined dates later this season when “restrictions may be eased or lifted.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic on Thursday that “it’s important from a revenue perspective, an HRR (hockey related revenue) perspective, to play before fans and to generate gate revenue.” But Daly admitted should restrictions continue long term, “there’s no way we can make up all those games or move or shift all those games. Like everything else, it’ll be a balancing act. As I said, the league and the other league partners are willing to be as cooperative as we can possibly be.”


Posted: Thursday, December 30

The NCAA Men’s and Women’s Tournaments will be held as planned in March and there are no intentions of going to a bubble environment like this past March in Indianapolis or San Antonio, the organization said on Wednesday afternoon.

Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president in charge of basketball, said there has been no discussion of bubble environments to hold March Madness compared to the 2021 events because of mitigation aspects to combat the COVID-19, highlighted by vaccines and boosters.

The men’s Final Four is scheduled to be held in New Orleans while the women’s Final Four is slated for Minneapolis.

Baylor players and coaches celebrate after winning the championship game against Gonzaga in the men’s Final Four on April 5, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Baylor won 86-70. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

“At this point, we are continuing the planning for the NCAA basketball championships with the normal format, schedule and multiple host sites,’’ said Gavitt. “We are certainly closely monitoring the unfortunate and sudden COVID spike and will consider any adjustments as necessary for the health, safety and success of the championships. However, despite the current challenges we’re experiencing in college basketball, the solutions to these problems during this phase of the pandemic are likely quite different than the dramatic championship format changes we had to adopt last year.”

The NCAA said that it will discuss later in January at the NCAA Convention in Indianapolis about whether the minimum number of games for a team to be eligible for this season’s tournament should change. Last year, the number was changed to 13; most teams have reached that number or are near that number as conference play approaches.

“I feel badly for the many teams that have been impacted with a pause and disrupted games so suddenly in just the last two weeks, yet the health and safety of student-athletes and coaches is rightly the primary concern,’’ Gavitt said. “It seems likely that we will continue to experience game postponements for the next couple of weeks due to the Omicron variant. The conferences and institutions are exercising their authority over the management of the regular season, which largely consists of conference games.

“The silver lining in the timing of this spike is that the vast majority of the non-conference schedule has concluded and teams on average have played 12 Division I games to date,’’ said Gavitt. “The championship and oversight committees are monitoring the ramifications of games lost to cancellation in the context of championship eligibility, which is within their authority and will be discussed during their January meetings.”

SPORTS: Westminster Dog Show Postponed

Posted: Thursday, December 30

The Westminster Kennel Club annual dog show has been postponed to a later date, the latest event to be postponed or canceled in New York City. The postponement comes less than two weeks after more than 8,500 canines, owners and handlers met for the American Kennel Club National Championship in Orlando, Florida.

“The health and safety of all participants in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show are paramount,” the club’s board of governors said in a statement. “We appreciate the community’s continued interest and support as we delay the show to a time when we can safely convene.”

The Westminster dog show attracts thousands of competitors and is normally held in February, with semifinal and final rounds at Madison Square Garden. Last year, it was moved to June and held outdoors in suburban Tarrytown with no fans.

HOCKEY: World Junior Event Canceled

Posted: Wednesday, January 29

The World Junior Hockey Championship for boys was canceled on Wednesday less than a week into group play because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases among players.

The International Ice Hockey Federation made the announcement after a Tuesday forfeit by the United States after two players tested positive, followed by forfeits on Wednesday by the Czech Republic and Russia. While the tournament took steps to keep players in a bubble-like atmosphere, teams in Red Deer shared the hotel with the general public, including a large wedding party with unmasked people in the lobby checking in throughout the tournament’s first week.

IIHF President Luc Tardif said the tournament could resume this summer. That the tournament was ongoing at all was a source of controvery after the IIHF went ahead with the boys event but canceled the girls event.

NBA: Protocols Change with Shorter Quarantine Periods

Posted: Tuesday, December 28

With an increasing number of players testing positive for COVID-19 every day, the NBA has adjusted its health and safety protocols with those who test positive able to return after six days.

Players and coaches could miss up to 10 days under the old rules once they tested positive. The league has more than 170 players and coaches in protocols over the past two-plus weeks; Portland’s Chauncey Billups and Phoenix’s Monty Williams were put in protocols on Monday, increasing the number of coaches in protocols to four; six coaches and 205 players have been in protocols over the whole season.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant is defended by Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey during the second half of an NBA game in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The NBA’s policy was followed hours later by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending COVID-19 quarantine be cut to five days from 10 days for asymptomatic individuals. After last night’s games, there have been 541 players who have been in at least one game this season, the most ever.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN before Christmas that the league will not pause the season, compared to the NHL. He added that at that point, around 90 percent of the cases in the league were the omicron variant but that they did not allow asymptomatic players to play.

“We looked at the options and, quite frankly, we’re struggling to come up with the logic to pause,” said Silver, not following up with the obvious reason for not to pause the season — the league, having lost hundreds of millions already in the pandemic with not having full crowds at the start of last season, cannot afford to lose more games this season.

The league could reasonably expect for the numbers to only increase given that daily testing will be implemented for all teams after Christmas. Monday saw stars including Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Phoenix’s DeAndre Ayton went into the protocols after testing positive. Christmas Day’s games already had stars missing such as Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and James Harden, plus Dallas’ Luka Doncic.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Bowl Cancellations Continue to Rise

Posted: Monday, December 27

The college football bowl season, a year after more than a dozen games were cancelled because of COVID-19, has seen this year’s number of cancellations rise over the weekend with one game trying to find an opponent on short notice.

The Sun Bowl, scheduled for New Year’s Eve in El Paso, Texas, lost the University of Miami on Sunday afternoon because of an outbreak of breakthrough positives among the Hurricanes program. The team had reportedly had several positives last week but admitted on Sunday that the number had increased.

Miami wide receiver Mike Harley (3) tries to break a tackle attempt by Duke safety Jalen Alexander (32) during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

“We are extremely disappointed that our football team will be unable to participate in the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl,” Miami Athletic Director Jennifer Strawley said in a statement. “This team worked hard all season to earn a bowl invitation and my heart goes out to our student-athletes, especially our seniors. … We regret the impact this has on the Washington State program and their postseason experience.”

Speaking of the Cougars, shortly after Miami’s withdrawl, WSU coach Jake Dickert went on Twitter and offered to play “any opponent” while Washington State announced it was working with the Pac-12 and the Sun Bowl Association to find an opponent. Washington State late Monday announced it would play in the Sun Bowl against Central Michigan after CMU’s game, the Arizona Bowl, was canceled because of an outbreak on the Boise State roster.

Miami’s withdrawl came less than 24 hours after two other bowls scheduled for this week were canceled, the Military Bowl and Fenway Bowl. Both were canceled last year as well; the Fenway Bowl is still waiting for its inaugural game to take place. And the Hawaii Bowl was canceled the night before Christmas as Hawaii did not have enough players to play Memphis.

Boston College had to withdraw from the Military Bowl instead of playing East Carolina while Virginia had to withdrawal from its Fenway Bowl matchup with SMU.

“We want to thank the Fenway Bowl and its staff for their preparation to host the game and for their communication with us over the past few days,” Virginia Athletic Director Carla Williams said. “We appreciate all of the hard work by our team and coaching staff. They earned this bowl invitation, and it is unfortunate they will not be able to compete in the game to complete the season. We regret how this also impacts our fans who were planning on attending the game as well as the SMU program and its fans.”

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Duke Postpones Two Games

Posted: Monday, December 27

The ACC has postponed the next two scheduled Duke men’s basketball games because of COVID-19 issues within the Blue Devils program. The team, ranked No. 2 last week, was scheduled to play against Clemson and Notre Dame.

Duke is 11-1 in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season highlighted by a win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga in November. Duke’s next scheduled game is January 4 against Georgia Tech. Krzyzewski said last week that he supported a return to daily testing among the protocols for this season with the spread of the omicron variant.

The ACC changed its policies last week as a result of omicron and reverted to last season’s protocols with games postponed instead of immediately considered forfeits. If a new date cannot be found for Duke’s two games, they will be considered no contests.

NFL, in bid to continue season, changes COVID testing protocols

Posted: Friday, December 24

The National Football League, dealing with more than 300 positive cases of COVID-19 among players within the past two weeks that has endangered games and with multiple weeks of the expanded regular season still to get played on time, has changed its policies including an end to testing vaccinated players who may be asymptomatic and would not know if they have contracted COVID.

NFL Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills said the league’s data shows asymptomatic individuals are not spreading the disease and the league is focusing on “symptom recognition and prompt testing.”

“I think all of our concern about [asymptomatic spread] has been going down based on what we’ve been seeing throughout the past several months,” Sills told ESPN on Thursday. “We’ve got our hands full with symptomatic people. Can I tell you tonight that there has never been a case when someone without symptoms passed it on to someone else? No, of course I can’t say that. But what I can say to you is that I think it’s a very, very tiny fraction of the overall problem, if it exists at all.”

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley (11) is tackled by Tampa Bay’s Ross Cockrell on December 12, 2021, in Tampa, Florida. Beasley, a vocal anti-vaccination player, tested positive for COVID this week. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

Sills comments is a departure from the stance of public health authorities for much of the pandemic when it comes to the ability of asymptomatic individuals transmitting COVID to others. The belief that players would self-report symptoms and potentially miss games has drawn criticism from some, pointing out self-reporting injuries is not common throughout the league; that criticism then drew criticism that there is a difference between reporting an injury (which does not spread) to reporting symptoms of an infectious disease (which does).

“If omicron is borne out to be much more transmissible but less severe, that’s a win-win for everyone,” Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs and associate professor of health-care policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Washington Post about the change in testing strategy. “In the short term, that’s a lot of ifs and this strategy carries a risk of unintended consequences in the short term, even if it’s in the right direction long term.”

While the league says that 94 percent of its players are fully vaccinated — far outperforming the country in vaccination rates — there have been 154 positive tests this week and more than 300 in the past two weeks, showing the ease in which omicron is transmitted even among vaccinated individuals. Unvaccinated players must isolate for 10 days after a positive test; the new protocols give vaccinated players a chance to return to sooner based on a combination of negative tests and control threshold readings which would show the level of virus load they have and could potentially transmit to teammates.

The modified protocols come after the NFL came closer to canceling games than perhaps it ever did last season in the heart of the pandemic and before vaccines became widely available. NFLPA President JC Tretter, a center for the Browns, said the NFL wanted to cancel three games last week involving his team, Washington and the Los Angeles Rams.

The Raiders at Browns game was moved from Saturday to Monday. Seattle at the Rams and Washington at the Eagles went from Sunday to Tuesday night. The Rams were the only team that had their game moved and were able to win on the rescheduled date.

Two Raiders players before the game hinted on Twitter that their game against Cleveland was moved because Tretter is the NFLPA president rather than concerns over the Browns’ COVID status. Tretter — who tested positive on Thursday and will miss this weekend’­s game — said he was focused on the NFL’s announcement before the season that should games be canceled, players would not be paid.

“The NFL’s position last week was that those three games were going to be canceled,” Tretter said Wednesday. “They weren’t going to be played, and if they weren’t played then nobody on either team was going to be paid. That’s obviously an issue for us as a union. Over 18 percent of our player population was at risk of not getting paid last week. Our position was we need to make sure all games are played in order for our guys to get paid.”

Last year there were 15 rescheduled games in the NFL season but no cancellations. There has been no talk of games this weekend being canceled and the NFL is determined to push ahead with the regular season as scheduled no matter the number of cases among teams, with several still having close to or over 20 players on the COVID list.

There is no denying that playing the rest of the season with the number of COVID-positive players rising is not ideal from a competitive standpoint. The New Orleans Saints, in the heart of the NFC wild-card race, will be starting rookie quarterback Ian Book because its top two QBs have tested positive; the New York Jets, in the midst of a race to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, may “have” an advantage with 20 players out, including two starting lineman and coach Robert Salah.

The Baltimore Ravens, in the heart of a tight AFC Central race, had only 13 healthy defensive players at practice on Thursday. And you have outliers in the league such as the Cincinnati Bengals with only one player on the COVID list (cornerback Chidobe Awuzie), leading quarterback Joe Burrow to half-jokingly say the team benefits from “there’s not a ton to do in Cincinnati. Nobody is going out to clubs and bars and getting COVID every weekend.”

Then there is the case of Buffalo’s Cole Beasley, who has fought seemingly anybody and everybody, including his own teammates, on social media about COVID testing all season and once said he would buy tickets for unvaccinated fans at road games because of Erie County’s policy of mandating vaccinations for entry to Bills games. Beasley, regardless of the NFL’s modified policies, is in the midst of a 10-day isolation after testing positive this week. He is, to no one’s surprise, unvaccinated.

NFL Schedule
All Times Eastern
Thursday’s Game
San Francisco at Tennessee, 8:20 p.m.
Saturday’s Games
Cleveland at Green Bay, 4:30 p.m.
Indianapolis at Arizona, 8:15 p.m.
Sunday’s Games
Detroit at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Baltimore at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
L.A. Rams at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Buffalo at New England, 1 p.m.
Jacksonville at N.Y. Jets,1 p.m.
N.Y. Giants at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.
Tampa Bay at Carolina, 1 p.m.
L.A. Chargers at Houston, 1 p.m.
Chicago at Seattle, 4:05 p.m. (proof of vaccination or negative COVID test required to attend)
Pittsburgh at Kansas City, 4:25 p.m.
Denver at Las Vegas, 4:25 p.m. (proof of vaccination required to attend)
Washington at Dallas, 8:20 p.m.
Monday’s Game
Miami at New Orleans, 8:15 p.m.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: CFP Released Outbreak Guidelines for Teams

Posted: Thursday, December 23

College football’s national champion could be decided away from the playing field if COVID has anything to do with it.

Ahead of the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve, the CFP management committee released its guidelines for this year’s event as the omicron variant continues surging throughout the country. The new policy allows for the chance that a team could win the national championship by default — as well as the potential for no champion to be recognized.

Under the guidelines, should one team not be able to play in its semifinal game, its opponent would win by forfeit. If two teams are unable to play, the two who are eligible will play for the national championship. And should a team reach the national championship and are unable to play on the original or a rescheduled date, its opponent would win the title by default.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, right, talks with Daniel Wright as he walks off the field during the second half against Missouri on September 26, 2020, in Columbia, Missouri. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

No. 1 Alabama faces No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl while No. 2 Michigan plays No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl on December 31. The January 10 national championship game in Indianapolis could be pushed back no later than January 14. If both teams can’t play on the original or rescheduled title game date, the national championship will be vacated.

Before the CFP could even announce its guidelines, Alabama announced that two of its offensive coaches, coordinator Bill O’Brien and line coach Doug Marrone, had tested positive. The Crimson Tide’s roster is more than 90 percent fully vaccinated, head coach Nick Saban said this week. Cincinnati, Michigan and Georgia’s rosters are all at least 90 percent fully vaccinated.

“As we prepare for the playoff, it’s wise and necessary to put into place additional precautions to protect those who will play and coach the games,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said in a statement. “These policies will better protect our students and staffs while providing clarity in the event worst-case scenarios result.”

The news for the CFP guidelines comes on the same day that the first team had to withdraw from a bowl game. Texas A&M, scheduled to play Wake Forest in the Gator Bowl, announced it would not be able to play in the game on December 31 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Texas A&M Athletic Director Ross Bjork told ESPN the Aggies were down to 38 scholarship position players, of which 20 were offensive and defensive linemen. Sixteen bowl games weren’t played as scheduled after the 2020 season because of COVID-19. The Gator Bowl is searching for a replacement opponent, with multiple reports indicating that either Rutgers or Illinois may fill in for the Aggies.

HOCKEY: NHL Withdraws From Beijing Olympics

Posted: Wednesday, December 22

What was expected to be one of the spotlight events of the Olympic Winter Games will still take place but with a lot less star power, as the National Hockey League and players union have agreed to withdraw from its planned participation in Beijing.

The official announcement came Wednesday as NHL has dealt with a surge of breakthrough positive COVID-19 cases that has forced more than a quarter of the teams to pause their seasons in the past two weeks alone. Just over 16 percent of the league’s players are in health protocols as of Monday.

Canada forward Sidney Crosby scores a goal on Sweden goaltender Henrik Lundqvist during the second period of the men’s gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool)

“The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL Players to represent their countries and participate in a ‘best on best’ tournament. Accordingly, we have waited as long as possible to make this decision while exploring every available option to enable our Players to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL’s regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events — 50 games already have been postponed through Dec. 23 — Olympic participation is no longer feasible. We certainly acknowledge and appreciate the efforts made by the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Beijing Organizing Committee to host NHL Players but current circumstances have made it impossible for us to proceed despite everyone’s best efforts. We look forward to Olympic participation in 2026.”

The NHL, with only one unvaccinated player at the start of the season, was cruising through its schedule until mid-December; there were two teams put on pauses, the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders, but the five games that were postponed had been rescheduled. But as the omicron variant began spreading throughout the world, the league in quick succession had to put the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets on pause.

Cross-border games between Canadian and U.S. teams were also paused for nearly a full week.  The league and union also announced the resumption of daily testing and other enhanced protocols through New Year’s Day. Heading into the Christmas break, the league’s number of postponed games had risen to 42, 37 of those in the past week.

ESPN reported that an issue with rescheduling currently postponed games or moving up games that are scheduled for later in the season is that many buildings that are home to NHL teams already have booked concerts and other events during the planned Olympic break in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from 2020 and early 2021.

The NHL planned to take a three-week break after All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas for players to participate in the Olympics, which was agreed to as part of the latest collective bargaining agreement. The league had a withdrawal deadline of January 10 without financial penalty after negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee.

The rising cases are the main driver behind the decision to withdraw but another key factor was the realization that — according to China’s latest edition of the Games playbooks — anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in China could be forced to quarantine for up to five weeks. The belief that China would not give any exemptions to the NHL got the attention of players who, this season, will not be paid for any games missed because of a positive test.

“Obviously, it’s unsettling if that were to be the case when you go over there.” Edmonton Oilers and Canadian superstar Connor McDavid said last week. “I’m still a guy that’s wanting to go play in the Olympics. But we also want to make sure it’s safe for everybody. For all the athletes, not just for hockey players.”

While multiple players had said they wanted more answers about protocols, only two players — Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner and San Jose defenseman Erik Karlsson —said they would not go to Beijing.

“I think it’ll be good to have some clarity on the COVID protocols over there,” Chicago Blackhawks goalie Marc-Andre Fleury told NBCSN Chicago earlier this month. “If you go to the tournament and stay between four walls for 4-5 weeks by yourself over there, not come back to your team, not play for a month or so and not see your family, too, I think it’s something you have to take into consideration.”

Players also will miss out on the chance to broaden their name recognition. While they have had successful careers, players such as since-retired Ryan Miller and T.J. Oshie are best known for their Olympic accomplishments rather than what they have achieved in the NHL.

“I think everyone looks at the Olympics as a best-on-best tournament,” Oshie said during an Olympic media summit earlier in the season. “To have the NHL players have the chance to get back in the Olympics, I think is so important for our game. For a lot of young players that might not had the chance to play at the last Olympics, I think it’s very important that they get an opportunity to do that, to represent their country and see what it feels like to have the honor of doing that.”

“You grow up as a kid and you want to play in the NHL, but I think the Olympics is the biggest stage, with the best hockey players in the world playing against each other,” Chicago’s Seth Jones added. “I know the guys weren’t happy in ’18 not being able to compete, so I’m sure everyone is ecstatic that we would be able to go to Beijing this year.”

For the powerhouse Canada team, while Sidney Crosby has multiple Stanley Cups to his name, his legend is burnished by his gold-medal winning overtime goal in the 2010 Games in Vancouver to beat the United States.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of two [Olympics],” Crosby said. “I definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities. It’s not something where it’s the next year or you push it a couple of months. These are experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete.”

And while the NHL would not have been able to do things such as use Olympic highlights because of copyright issues — a sore spot for Bettman, who kept players from competing at the 2018 Games in South Korea — the league also now will miss on the chance to make a mark in one of the biggest foreign markets in the world and get casual sports fans watching hockey.

“When you have 300 million people at your back, cheering for you and watching you, instead of certain cities around the league, it really brings the best out of you, and obviously is such a good way to grow the game,” Chicago’s Patrick Kane said in October. “It’s great for hockey in the United States, great for hockey around the world and especially going to a market like China, it’s a great way to grow the game.”

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