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Some COVID-19 Thoughts for Fellow Pro Athletes Abroad

Updated: Mar 13

In last month's On My Mind post, I wrote quite a few words on the burgeoning covid-19 crisis (those thoughts here). I prefaced that post by explaining that readers of my blog should feel free to skip my unsolicited thoughts on covid-19. Afterall, I acknowledge that I am not a virologist, pathologist, or infectious disease expert by any means. Those thoughts were simply a broad look at how I was contextualizing an uncertain and developing situation. They were secondary to my usual monthly recap.


In this somewhat unplanned post, I’m going to build on some covid-19 thoughts that relate specifically to pro athletes abroad. The motivation here is that over the last 48hrs I’ve received a new flood of messages asking about my current condition. It’s getting bad. Are you coming home? Those inquiries have continued to stream in from family and friends home in the USA and abroad, but now more of those are also coming from fellow professional athletes who might find themselves in a similar situation as myself. I’m framing this post with the latter in mind but also expecting it will serve as an update for the former. I’m only writing this in the hope that it will be valuable to fellow professional athletes as they weigh the situation and consider their options going forward.


Currently

Let me first overview the current conditions where I am in Italy both in terms of the general population and those specifically in sports. Over the last week, government mandates have become increasingly more aggressive in their attempts to stifle covid-19 contagion. Italy moved from instituting a “red zone” in the northern regions to very quickly extending the “red zone” across the entire country. Currrently 60 million people are under nationwide quarantine.


Likewise, we progressed from stores, restaurants and other places of business remaining open (with some limitations) to everything closing with exception of the essentials like supermarkets and pharmacies. Of course there are also ordinances to only go out if necessary (and if so to maintain social distance), to remain home if sick, and to only go to the hospital for emergencies.


For athletes, the protocols moved in step with the broader government actions. We saw games go from no fans to cancelled. Next the federation suspended the season until April 3 and followed by suspending all team activities until further notice. At the moment, there is a possibility some team activities could resume in late March. I can’t speak for other sports, but I believe all FIBA related activities have similarly been suspended. Broadly speaking, this is where we stand in a very fluid and still developing pandemic. I don’t want to spend time digging into the numbers and statistics.


Before diving into some deeper thoughts, let me just say that I am safe, remaining calm, and thankful I’m in an environment where aggressive measures are being taken. Forget basketball. Forget sports for a moment. This is a difficult health crisis that we’re all navigating together and it’s going to take a coordinated group effort (locally and globally) to get it under control.


I’m thankful for those people working nonstop on the front lines--the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals--that are doing everything in their power to keep the rest of us safe. The very least everyone else can do is make their jobs a bit easier by abiding by the quarantine guidelines and community health directives. The individual effort is small, but the collective impact can be massive. Hopefully just massive enough to slow down this crisis.


For my fellow professional athletes abroad, I know the recent developments have been alarming and perhaps confusing at times. This is an unprecedented health crisis afterall. I want to take some time to speak to some of our concerns and address the elephant in the room--leaving our respective teams to go home. Again, these are my personal opinions and how I am personally framing the situation for myself as it develops. I respect that everyone has their unique circumstances informing their decisions. You know the mantra. Do what you have to do.


Communicate & get informed

The first thing I’m prioritizing is communication. Since the crisis is unfolding rapidly, we’re all operating in an environment where definitive, forward-looking information is not readily available. The federations are waiting on governments, the clubs and coaches are waiting on the federations, and the players are waiting on the clubs. It’s a downstream flow of information so ultimately we’re all waiting to see how the crisis progresses on a day to day basis. This is an important consideration for foreign players and their respective clubs alike.


I single out us foreign players because I do believe it’s a different situation to manage when you’re not operating from a place of familiarity and comfort. While the situation may be obvious to those living locally, it’s not nearly as obvious to those depending on foreign players from afar. I recognize that many of us are thousands of miles away from home. Some of us have significant others and children. Others of us are juggling the frantic concerns of extended family and friends who are learning about what’s happening here only from the news there. This has been a recurrent pain point for athletes I’ve talked to. I strongly believe communication goes a long way even if the updates are ones that ultimately say “we don’t know yet... but this is what we’re doing in the meantime”. I recommend you push for as much clear information as possible especially if you’re a foreign player weighing the prospect of leaving.


Get informed. Let me say it one more time. Get informed. We have a responsibility to stay up to date on this crisis from both health and professional standpoints. I encourage you to develop a comprehensive and balanced view of what’s going on before making any big decision. Talk with your clubs, talk with your agent(s), talk with your family, and talk with other players. Resist the urge to assume just because you see drastic league suspensions or other players leaving immediately, you should too. Again, everyone’s situation is different; get to know yours.


Health Considerations

As I said before, this is bigger than sports. So the first way I’m framing my situation (and near term decisions) is through the lenses of health and security. I am asking myself am I safe here and now?


While Italy is on nationwide quarantine with staggering covid-19 case growth and a stressed healthcare system, it might be surprising to hear that I do in fact feel safe at the moment. Sure the numbers are alarming and it’s concerning to hear about the hospitals. Even so, I am comforted by the coordinated action that is taking place across the country. This cannot be overlooked. I feel this sense of safety because covid-19 is being taken seriously. Italy may have taken a few missteps, but now the country is combating the contagion systematically. The government has a plan and that plan is flowing all the way to the communities, clubs, players and citizens alike. I'm confident if I stay home and quarantine, I’ll probably be ok.


A couple of weeks ago I felt the general sentiment in Italy was “covid-19 is just the flu”.  Perhaps what we’ve witnessed in the last few days is a perfect case study as to why that is not the case. I fear other countries (the US included) have not yet taken heed to this point. I’m not only talking about the governments and the strength of their policy measures, more importantly I’m talking about the sentiment of the people.


The everyday citizens are the ones we depend on to follow the directives that will help stop covid-19 from spreading. More specifically, it’s the contingent of younger, healthier individuals that may become vectors to pass the risk to more susceptible population segments. If neither the aggressive policies or sentiments are in place, then from a safety perspective, I figure it’s probably an environment lagging behind where I already am. Essentially, these other places are playing catch-up. That in mind, I probably have a lesser chance of contagion in this strict quarantine environment than in one where no strong policy yet exists.


Professional considerations

For foreign athletes, I think the health risks are relatively straightforward no matter where you are. We can all agree, no one wants to get sick. In this next section, I want to tie in the unknown variables that directly affect athletes from a professional standpoint as they weigh whether or not to return home. This is where knowing your individual situation becomes increasingly important. Below, I’ll outline my circumstances in Italy. I hope this will give other athletes a framework for considering their own.


To start, it helps to have some context of time. As I mentioned before, in Italy competition is suspended until at least April 3. No games. At the moment all team activities are also suspended, but the caveat here is that those could potentially begin again in late March. I think the thought for many players here is that they will go home and if the situation improves, they’ll simply come back. I’m afraid this oversimplified stance underestimates a series of potential risks and travel frictions.


Let’s begin with getting home. For many of my fellow foreign players, that’s the USA. Last night No. 45 implemented new travel restrictions on European arrivals (excluding the United Kingdom) that go into effect tomorrow, March13. Though many athletes are trying to return before then (and are still welcome to return after that date if US nationals), the question remains whether the new restrictions could call for forced quarantines on arrival. Presumably, that would last for 14 days. I won’t speculate where that quarantine could take place. All I know is that 14 days extends beyond when team activities could resume.

Next I want to just briefly touch on the task of getting back. Even if quarantines aren’t an issue, one must consider the airlines and their shuttering of flights. Will athletes be able to arrange travel back to their teams on such short notice?


I think the ultimate unknown centers on the rapidly developing nature of this crisis. Up to this point, the above analysis assumes all variables remain constant--a static situation. However, we simply don’t know what will transpire in the next days (let alone the next week) in terms of policy action or case developments. Put another way, there is no way for an athlete to handicap the possibility that they get stuck at home and cannot return to their team. For players these should be serious contractual considerations. For clubs, these are certainly serious considerations for the feasibility of restarting competition (if it happens to come to that point). I don’t want to make any assumptions about either of these points. There’s a long line of what if’s and probably some legal gymnastics that I’d rather not entertain right now. For my fellow athletes, they’re worth considering.


Looking forward

Come April 3, Italian sports will have some serious decisions to make with regard to restarting competition and player safety. In the meantime, there is a plan in place and the next days should provide some valuable insight into where the situation is heading both here in Italy and abroad. For now, I’m sticking to that plan. I’m remaining in Italy and following the quarantine protocol. I have enough food, water, and hopefully enough wine. Levity aside, I don’t feel in any immediate danger to my health. Less important, I don’t think the near term benefits of going home outweigh the associated near and medium term risks of getting stuck. As the situation develops in the coming week(s), I hope the path forward will become clearer.


Until then, I urge everyone to continue to stay informed and stay safe. For foreign pro athletes, press for communication and get a balanced understanding of your individual circumstances. Mine certainly aren’t the same as yours. Talk to your club management and your agent(s). It also doesn't hurt to review your contracts.


Lastly, let’s all do our part to help get this pandemic under control. There are countless healthcare professionals taking much greater risks fighting this virus to ensure our safety. They could use a hand (preferably a washed one).


peace and blessings,


-jo

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