The coronavirus pandemic has been a referendum on societal cleanliness. Not just regarding the time spent washing one’s hands or wiping down household surfaces but also going right to the source: bodily fluids.
That includes the kinds found all over the sports world — the spitting, the licking, the spewing, the sweating and, perhaps most disgustingly, the snot rockets, where an athlete takes their hand, closes off one nostril and launches a stream of mucus through the open one.
Indeed, sports are pretty gross. Former MLB pitcher Huston Street, wearing the same baseball cap for months, would lick his hands and rub the brim to create a deep stain of saliva-drenched mud that he’d dab to get a better grip on the ball. “Let me put it this way: Every fluid the body creates has probably, at some point and time, made its way onto a baseball field. Like, during the game,” he told ESPN. “We’re all pretty gross. We’re children.”
When Fran Fraschilla coached NCAA men’s basketball, he would crouch among his players to diagram offensive sets during late-game timeouts and emerge saturated. “Five guys standing over me that were all a foot taller, and the sweat was pouring off of them down onto me like I was in a South American rainforest. That would happen every night,” he said. “Basketball, by its very nature, is kind of gross — large human beings, sweating profusely in their underwear, who are in close proximity to each other.”
It gets even worse. “I threw up in a trash can before every game of my career,” said Mark Schlereth, who played 12 years in the NFL with Washington and Denver. “Every. Single. Game. It was nerves. It was kind of a release. But I did it every game. And once I did it, [former Broncos center] Tommy Nalen would do it, then [former Broncos tackle] Matt Lepsis would do it. Or one of them would start, and then I would throw up. Pretty soon you’ve got all five starters on the offensive line throwing up in one trash can.”
In 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic? “We would all need our own trash cans if we were playing under the guidelines these guys are going to have,” Schlereth said. “About 20 feet apart. Maybe with our names on them.”
These revolting tales are a part of sports lore, but what happens now? Can sports still be this gross when games are being played during a global pandemic? Fraschilla called basketball “the perfect storm for coronavirus,” but each sport will have numerous concerns in play. How will leagues go about controlling bodily expulsions and secretions?
“What are they going to do? There’s no way to police a sneeze,” Street said.
Welcome to sports in 2020, where cleanliness is going to be next to godliness.
A complicated comeback
The return of sports provokes a series of questions, ranging from the dire to the trivial. Should leagues start up again at all? Multiple MLB games have already been postponed less than a week into the 2020 season after an outbreak of COVID-19 spread throughout the Miami Marlins‘ clubhouse, immediately testing the league’s plans. The debates rage over bringing athletes back into stadiums and arenas for the sake of entertaining empty seats, while more than 149,000 people in the U.S. alone have died from COVID-19, and positive test rates continue to rise in more than a dozen states.
Although 78% of fans polled in July said they would watch games played without fans, the term “opt out” has entered the sports lexicon for athletes. Stars like Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, citing family considerations, have chosen not to return to competition. “I have a 3-week-old baby,” Zimmerman said. “My mother has multiple sclerosis and is super high-risk; if I end up playing, I can pretty much throw out the idea of seeing her until weeks after the season is over. There’s a lot of factors that I and others have to consider. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer; it’s everybody’s individual choice.”
There are added layers of paranoia for the athletes who contracted COVID-19 and are coming back to compete. Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, a four-time All-Star, said he had a temperature of 104.5 degrees and recalled praying “Please don’t take me” at the height of his symptoms. His return to play came with extra scrutiny, as the Braves and MLB monitored his health.
But sports are coming back. So the next question relates to how to do it safely. Every epidemiologist and medical expert contacted by ESPN indicated that the path forward is one of frequent testing — of everyone involved in the competitions — and securing facilities in a “bubble” that reduces interaction with the general public.
MLB is testing its players every other day during the season and administering antibody tests once a month. The NHL is testing players every day during its season restart. The NBA is testing everyone inside its bubble each night, with results coming back in the morning. The NFL began testing its players each day during the first two weeks of training camp and said it would move to every other day if the positive tests fall below 5%. The WNBA had daily testing as players arrived in its bubble.
“The key thing with the pro sports teams is that they will undoubtedly have the resources to allow themselves to get tested frequently,” Dr. Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, told ESPN.
“These are groups of people that undoubtedly will be interacting closely during the game or surrounding the game. I think that because of that, there are populations that are liable to have a lot of spread, to have a virus introduced and to have someone that’s infected get into the population. For these teams to really move forward, and to ensure that they’re all going to be safe, they just need to make sure that they’re not infected when going into practices and games.”
Leagues such as the NBA and NHL that are restarting in a bubble could theoretically succeed in finishing their seasons if protocols are followed, according to Dr. George Rutherford, professor and director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.
“There are ways you can do it where people are tested with great frequency; that would minimize the risk. But understand that if people are infected, they gotta go out right away,” he said. “As long as you’re testing twice a week, social distancing and wearing masks while in public. They’re going to get infected by other people, not by their benchmates.”
After establishing that sports are coming back and determining the safest way they can come back, the next question is what needs to change about these sports in a COVID-19 world. There’s new information daily about transmission of the coronavirus, but experts are confident that the virus isn’t spread through perspiration. Other bodily fluids are another story.
“There are all sorts of things that go on in sports that are not hygienic. Spitting. Licking things. Getting right up in an official’s face and yelling. Biting. All of those things are unhygienic and risk some kind of disease transmission,” Rutherford said.
In fact, MLB has mandated, among other things, social distancing for players and managers when arguing with umpires: “Players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.” We got our first viewing of such an encounter this weekend, when Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton argued with an umpire while keeping his distance.
As Rutherford said, “There’s more saliva exchanged in a baseball game than there is at a high school dance.”
One of the most enduring clichés in baseball is spitting. Players do it every game. Roseanne Barr did it after her horrific national anthem before a San Diego Padres game in 1990. In the comedy classic “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” players, coaches and fans of the California Angels and Seattle Mariners — and even the players’ wives — hock loogies onto the diamond, with vivid sound design. “Everything we spoof, we love,” writer-director-producer David Zucker told the Los Angeles Times. “We went after every baseball cliché.”
Strands of spit are so woven into the fabric of baseball that expectorating had to be addressed with multiple entries in MLB’s 101-page operations manual for the 2020 season:
“Players are prohibited from spitting, using smokeless tobacco, and sunflower seeds at all times while in Club facilities.”
“[On-field] spitting is prohibited (including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco) at all times in Club facilities (including on the field). Chewing gum is permitted.
“Individuals are prohibited from using spit or sweat to rub baseballs.”
MLB doesn’t specify what the penalties are for any of these infractions in its return-to-play policies.
While the NBA isn’t “prohibiting” spitting, its return-to-play rules state that “at all times on the court, players must avoid spitting.” Across all sports this summer, athletes are reconsidering how much they expel during games.
“I didn’t really know. Do I spit when I play?” asked Mikie Schlosser, a defender for the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse. “I didn’t really think I spit when I played. Some guys do. It really varies. It’s a high-contact sport. There’s always these fluids being exchanged everywhere.”
What do sports without spitting even look like?
The National Women’s Soccer League was the first pro league in the U.S. to return to play in late June. “We’re not allowed to spit because of coronavirus … but we can’t just not spit,” said forward Paige Nielsen of the Washington Spirit. “So we’re continuing to do that. We’re just doing it more secretively.”
She said that some NWSL players try to distance themselves to unpopulated parts of the pitch before spitting. Despite the necessity for it — Nielsen said players try to create as much saliva as they can to overcome dry throats and breathe more easily — they’re making an effort not to spit, and feeling a little guilty when it happens.
“One time I spit during a game, and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I’m so sorry.’ But no one really watched me, so I don’t know why I said I was sorry. It’s strange,” Nielsen said with a laugh. “We’re trying to do our part and be responsible.”
It’s not just the players’ spittle at issue.
“Coaches should wear a mask,” said Fraschilla, now a basketball analyst for ESPN. “When coaches get excited, it’s not just the words that come out of your mouth. It could be saliva or other things. And you’re all on top of each other.”
In the NBA, active players and four first-row coaches aren’t required to wear masks. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, 69, told TNT recently that he wears a mask around the bubble, including practice, only taking it off to speak. Masks on the sideline aren’t mandatory for NFL coaching staffs either, though they are strongly recommended by the league. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said, “Once I get a mask and shield on, they won’t have to worry about me spitting.”
MLB requires all individuals in three “tiers” to wear a face covering inside club facilities. (Tier 1 covers players, coaches and team physicians; Tier 2 includes front-office employees and clubhouse staff; those in Tier 3 are people who perform essential services but don’t come in contact with Tier 1 individuals.) The NHL has similar tiers to MLB and is mandating that “face coverings (cloth or surgical-type mask) shall be worn at all times that individuals are outside of their rooms” within the two bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. That includes within the hotels and around the arena, though masks are not mandated during workouts or, obviously, during games.
According to Dr. Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health, coaches should check their volume too. “There’s also an interesting article I read that talked about people that loudly talked — the louder the volume of your voice, the more respiratory particles that come out, and the greater chance you can transmit infection. So the coaches that are yelling at first base, the more virus particles they could be expelling versus just making a hand signal,” she said.
Referees make hand signals during a game, but they’re punctuated by using a whistle. While “digital whistles” that are operated by hand are becoming available, the traditional breath-propelled whistle is still the norm. Fraschilla wondered about that in light of COVID-19. “Referee whistles have the saliva come flying out,” he said. “I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. ‘Schmutz’ is the perfect word.”
How dangerous is the “schmutz”?
Rutherford said he doesn’t believe that spitting is a significant threat for COVID-19 transmission. “This is a respiratory virus. If you cough or sneeze, it could clearly be transmitted. But spitting, per se? Highly unlikely. Unless someone ran their fingers through it and stuck it in their eyes,” he said. “But here’s a chance to inject some civility, you know? How about a cup [for the seeds]? How about pretending that the floor of the dugout couldn’t be washed out by a fire hose and that it was really your in-laws’ carpet?”
Nolan, on the other hand, offered some concern about seed spitting. She said that spitting “puts the virus in the environment” of a game setting “if there are virus particles living on the saliva” being expelled.
“When I think about the grosser aspects, like spitting sunflower seeds … well, those sunflower seeds could contain infectious particles on them,” Nolan told ESPN. “I would think the bigger risk of getting infected is that the janitorial staff comes to clean it up, touches it with their hands when scooping it up, and then touches their face. Anything that has to do with saliva or spit could, in theory, transmit infection.”
That would include licking, much to the chagrin of Drew Brees.
“The whole point is to help give your hands a little tackiness so you get better grip on the ball,” Brees said. “I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot lately as I’ve started throwing again. Trying to avoid it, but it has been so habitual for so long. You don’t realize how much you touch your face and lick your fingers until COVID hit.”
Ryan Harris, an offensive lineman for seven years in the NFL, didn’t need a pandemic to loathe finger licking. “It’s so gross, even when there isn’t COVID,” he said. “And just look where he puts his hands the play before, the play after, and the play he’s running when he licks his fingers. Do the math. Honestly, there are a lot of every-day, don’t-give-it-a-second-thought things people are going to have to give a second thought about.”
For instance, prior to this, pitchers never gave licking their hands a second thought. It’s as inherent a part of their routines as shaking off a sign from the catcher.
Street was one of the most notorious hand-lickers in baseball during his career, one that included 324 saves over 13 seasons. As a relief pitcher, he entered the game when the chalk-covered game balls at the bottom of the bag were being put in play.
“You lick the ball, you throw the ball, you hit the ball,” Street said. “I don’t know if the grass brushes it off or whatnot, but if someone picks it up, the outfielders have been licking their hands in between pitches. You grab the ball and then you lick your hand again. So I would imagine we’re all exchanging something, somehow. There are a billion ways for this virus to go around and around beyond spitting seeds.”
It’s yet to be seen how the NFL will handle hand licking in its season, but the NBA and MLB have prohibited it, with the latter having implanted the now-infamous “wet rag” rule. According to the rule, “All pitchers may carry a small wet rag in their back pocket to be used for moisture in lieu of licking their fingers. Water is the only substance allowed on the rag. Pitchers may not access the rag while on the pitching rubber and must clearly wipe the fingers of his pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher’s plate. Umpires will have the right to check the rag at any point.” Pitchers were also instructed to bring their own rosin bag to the mound.
MLB additionally states that “any baseball that is put in play and touched by multiple players shall be removed and exchanged for a new baseball. After an out, players are strongly discouraged from throwing the ball around the infield.”
Not everyone is on board with the extensive measures. Though he hasn’t played since 2017, Street sarcastically wondered, “If I pitch a baseball, at what spin rate does COVID fly off the baseball? Now that’s an interesting study. We can reinvent the game. Once spin rate drops to a certain level for a pitcher, and COVID can stay on the ball, then you have to pull the pitcher. Mandatory pitcher substitution for the health and safety of the players. It would be like, ‘I know you’re a really good closer, but sorry, the COVID sticks on the ball too well for you.'”
Skepticism aside, Nolan says she believes that if not for proper cleaning, equipment like balls and bats would be a major risk factor in restarting sports in a pandemic. “Very bad news. That I’d say would be a big risk,” she said. “That’s why we think gyms are going to be a hotbed. By working out you’re shedding more virus, you’re breathing heavier and harder. Combine that with stainless steel and plastic materials, which are the ones where the virus can live on the longest and the best.”
That’s why the NBA had team staff clean basketballs after team workouts with dish soap and water, letting them dry and then spraying them with a disinfectant. Along with asking players to avoid spitting, the league has asked players to avoid licking hands, unnecessary touching of mouthguards and “clearing your nose” while on the court.
That’s right: COVID-19 could mean the end of one of sports’ greatest, grossest traditions: the snot rocket.
Benn, of the NHL’s Canucks, said it’s not mandatory that he launch snot rockets into the atmosphere. It has just become a natural part of his routine.
“You’re breathing heavy after almost every shift. You come off the ice, sit on the bench, clear your runways, take a sip of water and then you get back out there,” he said.
The NHL’s return-to-play protocols don’t specifically call out spitting, licking or “snot rockets” like baseball and basketball do, other than asking players to use tissues for a sneeze.
“I’m not going to put my stick down, take my gloves off and ask the trainer, ‘Can I have a tissue?’ That’s just not going to happen,” Benn said. “If they tell us we can’t do it, the entire league and every guy is just going to do it anyway. I think it’s going to be too hard to police. Guys aren’t going to be thinking about it. It just comes so naturally.”
Harris recalled firing snot rockets “every day” on the field during his NFL career. “I shot them like crazy. Clear your nose and play on. If you can’t snot rocket, you can’t breathe. Do that with a full COVID facemask, and that’s a habit that’s going to be an issue,” he said, referencing the Oakley-designed face coverings that could be headed to the NFL.
Nielsen said snot rockets have their place on the pitch as well. “When I’m on the soccer field, it’s very normal,” she said. “Especially in March when it’s preseason and it’s cold in D.C. and you’ll see it flying everywhere. Your hands are so cold that you can’t even grab a tissue, and you’re in the middle of the play and you can’t breathe. You just have to. You have to clear your airways.”
But the snot rocket during a pandemic? “I’ve actually seen players, after they have a snot rocket, kind of step on it. I don’t know if this helps at all. But they try to bury it into the ground,” she said.
Every little bit counts when dealing with mucus, which has a much higher viral load than saliva. “[Snot rockets are] not going to be good,” Rutherford warned. “That’s seriously uncool. We’re not talking hygiene there. If you somehow got that on your finger and then rubbed that in your eye or nose, you could certainly get infected.”
Nolan added, “If you have some kind of aspirant, like phlegm, it’s super rich with virus. You’re much more likely to get infected by snot versus spit. So no more snot rockets. C’mon boys, listen to your mother.”
Spitting. Licking. Snot rocketing. Moms frown upon them all, but all have been indelible parts of the sports experience. Perhaps that changes during a global pandemic, thanks to league protocols and an increased self-awareness about unhygienic behavior. Or perhaps sports are just gross and will instinctually remain so during games.
“It’s almost funny for me that we’re taking all of these precautions on the field, but once you put your gear on, all bets are off,” said Schlosser of MLL. “You’re not going to think any differently about how you’re going to play or what you’re going to do.
“Most of the guys I talk to on my team … we just want to play. We’re already risking exposure. And I don’t mind that risk, doing something that I love and doing something I’m compensated for. That’s the conclusion we’ve come to.”
ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Jeff Legwold, Mike Triplett and Jesse Rogers provided additional reporting for this story.