NFL can return to play with 'frequent and compulsory testing': 3 spine surgeons on the upcoming campaign


Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have found relative success with the resumption of play during the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective campaigns.

Three spine surgeons discuss how the National Football League can learn from the NBA and MLB as it prepares to return to play Sept. 10.

Ask Spine Surgeons is a weekly series of questions posed to spine surgeons around the country about clinical, business and policy issues affecting spine care. We invite all spine surgeon and specialist responses.

Next week's question: How have your patient evaluation considerations changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Please send responses to Alan Condon at by 5 p.m. CDT Wednesday, Aug. 26.

Note: The following responses were lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: Do you think the NFL season should go ahead in September? What can the NFL learn from MLB and the NBA's return to play?

Srdjan Mirkovic, MD. Northshore Orthopaedic & Spine Center (Skokie, Ill.): Yes. Based on current professional sports play, it's reasonable to presume it is safe for the NFL to proceed with its season next month. As a physician for the Chicago Bears, the team has been following strict protocols during the preseason, including testing and re-testing as well as separation on the field and more. One would not expect there to be significant differences in the precautions team members take when they start to compete against other teams. If there is a positive COVID-19 test, the NFL is prepared to respond accordingly. 

Strict policies will be in place when the NFL teams travel as well. Despite the close quarters in airplanes and buses and staying in hotels, separation will be adhered to as much as possible. Also, there will be repeated COVID-19 testing.

What we have learned, especially from the NBA, is the risk of COVID and its potential rapid spread can be monitored closely, and measures can be put in place to diminish exposure. NBA players are in closer contact with one another more so than NFL players, and we haven't seen a spike in COVID-19 cases during the ongoing basketball season. If we take what we know about the virus and the experience monitoring and managing it already in professional sports, it is reasonable to consider proceeding with the football season.

Brian Gantwerker, MD. Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: Professional sports are an integral part of many communities' revenue stream, not to mention a social outlet for many families. But I feel that it is more advisable to have a truncated season. At the very center of these sports is close contact and it would be very unfortunate if players, staff and coaches became ill or worse. I think resumption of play is feasible, provided testing is frequent and compulsory. If I were commissioner of either league, I would have a very low tolerance for canceling the season. As much as I love watching my Bears and Bulls play, it's not worth the risk of the athletes' and/or other staff's wellbeing.  After all, it's hard to pass the ball when you're intubated. 

Christian Zimmerman, MD. Saint Alphonsus Medical Group and SAHS Neuroscience Institute (Boise, Idaho): Dwindling numbers of admissions and severity speak to another decline and better control of this disease and its transmission. Learned lessons of distance and awareness are assuredly the norm. Albeit, the sports industry has been affected by 'de-coalescences' in public forums, eventually some return to normalcy will prevail. Give our kids and their education equal attention and let's get them reengaged.

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