Professional sports leagues on red alert

DURHAM: Fans of the Duke Blue Devils try to distract Latavian Lawrence #4 of the South Carolina State Bulldogs during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 14, 2021 in Durham, North Carolina. — AFP

LOS ANGELES: Professional sports leagues across North America were on alert Tuesday as a surge of COVID-19 cases left dozens of players sidelined, prompted teams to shutter facilities and forced the postponement of more fixtures. The NFL, NBA and National Hockey League were scrambling to counter a sharp uptick in coronavirus cases as the Geneva-based World Health Organization warned the new Omicron variant was spreading at an unprecedented rate.

After a relatively untroubled opening three months of the American football season, COVID-19 has returned to stalk the NFL with a vengeance in the past week. A day after the NFL reported a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases-with 37 recorded in a single day on Monday-the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns became the latest teams to be hit by the virus. The Rams closed their practice facility and entered the NFL’s intensive safety protocols after nine players were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Affected Rams players included star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr Four other Rams players were already on the COVID-19 list. Rams staff will work remotely on Tuesday and Wednesday and more cases are expected in what head coach Sean McVay said was a “uniquely challenging” situation. In Cleveland meanwhile, the Browns announced the team had also entered the NFL’s enhanced COVID-19 protocols after eight players were put on the reserve list.

The Washington Football Team reported two more players on the team’s COVID-19 list, taking the tally to 10. On Monday, US reports said a Washington employee-not directly involved with the playing or coaching staff-had tested positive for Omicron, the first known case of the variant in the NFL. As of November 17, more than 94% of NFL players have been vaccinated, while nearly 100% of NFL personnel have also been vaccinated.

NBA, NHL hit

In the NBA meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers cancelled a scheduled practice session on Tuesday after Talen Horton-Tucker tested positive. In a separate development, the Brooklyn Nets confirmed that starters James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Bembry would miss Tuesday’s home game against the Toronto Raptors after entering COVID-19 protocols.

Jevon Carter and James Johnson were also added to the COVID-19 list on Tuesday, joining the Nets Paul Millsap, who entered the protocols on Monday. On Monday, the NBA said Chicago’s games against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday and Toronto Raptors on Thursday had both been called off, the first games of the season to be postponed due to COVID-19. Ice hockey was also facing a COVID resurgence. On Monday, the NHL postponed Calgary Flames games through to December 16 after six players and a member of staff entered the COVID protocols.

Seven NHL teams reported new COVID cases on Tuesday, and the Carolina Hurricanes were forced to postpone their game with the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday after an outbreak. COVID-19 concerns have also placed a question mark over the participation of NHL stars at next February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. NHL Players Association executive director Don Fehr said on Saturday that a lack of “concrete answers” from Beijing Games officials about COVID-19 protocols, including quarantine rules, was creating uncertainty among players.

Speaking on a video conference call on Tuesday, USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said that, although officials received fresh guidelines on Monday, they were still awaiting clarity on quarantine rules for any player testing positive for COVID-19 in China. “We are certainly hopeful that all systems will be go by the time we get ready to go to Beijing,” Kelleher said. “But there’s certainly work to be done. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to be discussed and hopefully answered so that everybody can feel the best about sending the best players from the NHL.” — AFP