After spending parts of five years as a wide receiver in the NFL, anesthesiology resident Nate Hughes said he certainly plans to tune in to football season this fall. He still has friends in the league, after all, and relationships with some of the coaches.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, with more than 4.8 million confirmed cases across the country, Hughes admits he probably won’t watch NFL games in the same way. Not after working on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic.
“I’m caught in the middle,” Hughes told USA TODAY Sports. “I love sports, but at the same time, I wish we would do more to protect each other.”
Hughes is one of many front-line health care workers who are now watching the return of professional sports leagues with mixed feelings, or a pit in their stomach — a certain uneasiness as they try to reconcile their fandom with the knowledge that playing games may put athletes and others at risk of transmitting COVID-19.
Doctors and nurses understand better than most the positive impact that sports can have on mental health, both for themselves and their patients. They love being able to watch a game after a long shift, or see a patient use sports as a temporary escape from his or her hospital bed. But they also understand better than most what COVID-19 can do to the human body, leaving many of them torn.
“I think that sports are great, and I think they’re positive, and I think we need them,” said Laura Rosenthal, a nurse practitioner at University of Colorado Hospital and professor at the university’s College of Nursing. “(But) when I hear, ‘Oh we’re going to open up the stadium,’ it gives me that kind of underlying prickly feeling — like ‘ugh, is that really a good idea?’ “
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Rosenthal has been a nurse for two decades, but she’s also a fan of Michigan football, and the Denver Broncos. When she thinks ahead to football season, she can’t imagine watching two players collide in a game on TV and not wondering whether one of them has COVID-19. She can’t think about seeing fans in the seats — even in a limited capacity — without also thinking of them streaming into and out of the stadium in crowds, or lining up at a bathroom or concession stand.
“It would always be in the back of my mind,” she said. “And then thinking, ‘Now am I going to see half of these people in the hospital?’ “
That feeling of uneasiness lingers even for some nurses and doctors who are not actively treating COVID-19 patients, but might have colleagues who do.
Keith Buehner, a retired nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, said he’s been a Miami football season-ticket holder for 35 years. He’s performed at Miami Heat games as part of the team’s senior dance squad, “The Golden Oldies.” But when he watches the Heat now, or thinks about going to a Hurricanes game in the fall, he thinks about the resources that sports leagues might be using that could otherwise be helping his former colleagues.
“I get it. I miss (sports), too,” Buehner said. “I just don’t think it’s right.”
Those views are hardly unanimous, however.
Chris Hutchinson, an emergency room physician at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, was an All-American defensive lineman for the Wolverines and now has one son, Aidan, on the team. He knows how financially important sports like college football are to athletic departments, universities and local economies. He views the return of sports as vital, and has no qualms or concerns about his son playing this fall.
“It’s a sport (but) it has a lot of other ramifications,” Hutchinson explained. “And as long as the risk is small — let’s be honest, these (college athletes) are the healthiest kids. … I’m not going to mince words: Their risk is not zero. No one’s risk is zero. But I think at some point you have to say what risk is acceptable? And again, everybody’s going to have a different level of that.”
Hutchinson acknowledged that there are other front-line health care workers who disagree with him — including an older doctor at his own hospital, with whom he works regularly. Hughes, who now works at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and is training to be an anesthesiologist, would be another.
The former Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions wide receiver said his medical experience — previously as a nurse, and now as a resident — has shaped the way he watches sports these days. He said he’s become a big fan of mixed martial arts over the past month, for example, in part because he’s comfortable with the sport’s COVID-19 protocols. There are no fans, two fighters at a time and only a handful of people in each corner. He can watch comfortably because he believes it’s safe.
“I just kind of wish we could pause a little bit longer,” Hughes said, “until we got things better controlled.”