Sports

The public should know when a pro athlete has COVID-19. It’s safer, and there’s no shame in it

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The news came from Grigor Dimitrov himself. Not the governing bodies of international tennis. Not from an aggressive news agency working its sources.

On Sunday, the No. 19-ranked player in the world revealed that he has tested positive for the coronavirus, which forced the cancellation of a charity tennis event in Croatia. Dimitrov said on his Instagram page that he was making his diagnosis public to “make sure anyone who has been in contact with me during these past days gets tested.”

The competition was part of the four-leg Adria Tour organized by superstar Novak Djokovic, who also played basketball with Dimitrov on Thursday. Last week’s events were in Serbia, which has relaxed most of its coronavirus restrictions. There were pictures of players standing arm-in-arm, and fans gathering without social distancing. Other tennis stars including Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev were also participants.

Dimitrov, a Bulgarian, played in Serbia last week, then faced Borna Coric in Croatia on Saturday but withdrew after feeling unwell during the match. Dimitrov said he actually tested positive recently in Monaco.

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“I am so sorry for any harm I might have caused,” he said.

It was a sobering blow for the sport, which has been on hiatus since March and hopes to return in August. Recently, officials vowed to hold the U.S. Open as scheduled starting Aug. 24, but the Dimitrov news has served notice just how quickly an event can be totally disrupted by just one athlete testing positive.

There are other issues.

This was an instance of an athlete taking personal responsibility for making his health situation known so that others can protect themselves, which is what we all need to be doing these days. After all, this is a respiratory illness that’s very easy to transmit unknowingly. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, right?

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But not everyone in the sports world feels like this at the moment.

The recent report that Maple Leafs star centre Auston Matthews had tested positive for COVID-19 was followed up with a stern release from the team, stating that it intended to aggressively guard the privacy of Matthews and all other Leafs.

“A person’s medical information in this regard is private,” the Leafs said in the statement. “The club will defer to the NHL’s policy on handling the disclosure of positive test results.”

So far, that policy has been to give out the number of positive tests and the teams involved, but not the identity of an individual player. This conforms with the league’s preference for secrecy over openness at all times when it comes to injuries and illnesses. The NHL also confirmed that three members of the Tampa Bay Lightning tested positive, but did not reveal their identities.

It’s worth noting the NHL Players’ Association did not appear to be a participant in either news story. To date, the league and players union have agreed on a schedule for the NHL to reopen, but not the conditions under which players will return to work.

The larger question here is: What takes top priority when pro athletes test positive — public health and safety, privacy or the business needs of these sports as they desperately try to get started?

Last week, golfer Nick Watney tested positive during the second round of a PGA event. The information was quickly circulated among other participants and then made public. Watney himself contacted world No. 1 Rory McIlroy after they had played a round together.

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Two other golfers who had played with Watney, Luke List and Vaughan Taylor, continued in the tournament, leaving many to wonder precisely what the protocol for informing players should be, and how to handle others who had been in close proximity to the infected player.

These are tough questions. We’ve travelled a long way from having the Utah Jazz quickly identify Rudy Gobert as the team member whose positive test ultimately proved to be the impetus for the postponement of the NBA season. If the NBA restarts next month, it’s unclear whether the league would be so quick to identify infected players.

But the nature of the pandemic and the urgency with which various sports are trying to get back to business suggests that a more liberal protocol could not only be helpful, but necessary.

Several Canadian cities are vying to become “hubs” for NHL games if play resumes, and the Canadian government appears willing to waive the 14-day quarantine period for NHLers. But if it’s Toronto or Vancouver or Edmonton, it could be argued such preferential treatment comes with a responsibility to supply specific information if and when players, coaches or other team personnel test positive for the coronavirus.

While tennis and golf are dealing with their particular needs, the North American sports world could soon be dealing with much greater numbers in hockey, basketball, baseball and football. College football in the U.S. is already being affected, with 23 members of the Clemson team testing positive while LSU announced it has 30 players in quarantine.

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Are all these athletes going to be afforded blanket privacy? Or, as in the case of Dimitrov, should the onus be on individual athletes to take the responsibility of making their health status available to others who may have come in contact with them?

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For public health authorities to do their jobs properly, with effective contact tracing, the privacy concerns of professional athletes may have to take a back seat.

It’s much more helpful in that regard to have Dimitrov step forward on his own than to have the NHL and its member teams aggressively blocking the identities of infected athletes.

More openness, not more secrecy, seems to be the ultimate answer here.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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