Shannon Ryan: From Wisconsin football to Justin Turner, sports celebrations are halted by stark reminders of COVID-19

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

CHICAGO — It seems the Big Ten didn’t get through even one game without a player who had COVID-19.

Wisconsin redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz reportedly tested positive Saturday, a day after his spectacular debut in a 45-7 victory against Illinois to kick off the conference season after a two-month delay. Backup Chase Wolf also tested positive, according to Tuesday reports.

By Wednesday morning, the Badgers were forced to pause all team activities and cancel their next game against Nebraska after a total of 12 people — six players and six staff members, including coach Paul Chryst — tested positive with additional results pending. The game, originally scheduled for Saturday, will not be made up, Wisconsin said in a statement.

“We have said from the beginning that the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff members comes first,” athletics director Barry Alvarez said in a statement. “Over the past several days we have seen a rising number of student-athletes and staff contract the virus. The responsible thing for us to do is to pause football-related activities for at least seven days.”

It’s another reminder that no matter how stringent the protocols, even daily testing, nothing is guaranteed during this pandemic.

Even celebrations seem to have a time limit these days.

Sports have offered glimmers of normalcy in an uncertain era: time to momentarily forget political ugliness, a couple of hours to quell pandemic anxiety. It’s no wonder so many argue for games to continue as normal despite the risks.

The NBA and NHL playoff bubbles, without infections, were models to admire and copy. Major League Baseball recovered from some early slip-ups and finished a season. No Big Ten team needed to cancel an opening game because of COVID-19.

Hey, why worry?

But then: Boom.

Reality hits during revelry.

It happened again Tuesday night in a decisive Game 6 of the World Series. In another bizarre moment of the pandemic, Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was pulled after the team was informed a COVID-19 test came back positive.

Amid the celebrations, there are reminders.

And we should take them as such.

Even when teams and players don’t. Despite reportedly being asked not to return to the field for the World Series trophy presentation, Turner, knowing of his test result, returned, pulled down his mask, hugged teammates and kissed his wife.

Someone publicly flouting science and appearing absent of a conscience? How 2020.

But whether a player is irresponsible or responsible doesn’t always make a difference. Frequent testing isn’t a panacea.

MLB and the Big Ten’s cases highlight the problems with testing lag time. A few days can pass before the infection results in the positive test of an asymptomatic carrier. And COVID-19 can be spread during that time.

It’s unlikely Mertz tested positive the very day he contracted the virus, meaning he (and others) very well could have played with an infection.

Turner spent time with his teammates. They’ll travel home. They will — and already have — come in contact with essential workers who transport them, provide them meals, clean up after them. Those people also have family members who then can be infected.

Some will believe concerns about positive tests among athletes are overreactions.

After all, just look how many games were played successfully in baseball without outbreaks. And maybe the Big Ten will fit in most of its conference games.

Yet, there are reminders that it doesn’t always go well.

In September, the Boston Red Sox said pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez finally was cleared to walk on a treadmill as he recovered from a COVID-19-related heart issue after he contracted the virus in July.

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead is not expected to play again this season after twice being hospitalized because of COVID-19 complications, including respiratory issues.

Most young athletes, thankfully, seem to recover quickly, but long-term health effects from the virus are unknown.

Spotted hours before the Big Ten kickoff Friday in Madison, Wis., a spray-painted piece of plywood on a boarded-up storefront window read: “The pandemic isn’t over because you’re over it.”

Enjoy the victories.

But heed the reminders.

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