With sports returning, what happens to the locker room and clubhouse?

Later this month, the NBA will finally return to action after four and a half months at rest, inside the semi-permeable bubble at Disney World. Major League Baseball and the WNBA will return around that same time. Both American soccer leagues, the MLS and NWSL, will have been back for weeks.

The leagues will face scrutiny unlike any other time in their history as they try to play amid a global pandemic. While the United States tries to stabilize itself as the novel coronavirus spreads, jumping from one epicenter to another, sports will make the biggest bet yet: That it can out-smart the virus long enough to play some semblance of a season for each of the respective leagues.

Health and safety will be of the utmost concern. There will be symptom-tracking rings and social-distancing guidelines. There will be testing — lots of it. The NBA has released a 113-page manual detailing each stage leading up to the deployment of teams into Orlando and then what they’ll have to do on the ground.

While the leagues have rightfully devoted much attention to many stages of the return, there has been one overlooked part of sports that is also worth a discussion. With sports returning, what happens to the locker room?

Locker rooms, and clubhouses, are central to any team. They are changing rooms and meeting rooms. They are destinations for players when they get to the arena and the last port before they leave. They are meant for uplifting moments and for killing time. For pregame speeches and halftime adjustments.

They are also usually small, enclosed spaces that cluster dozens of people together for prolonged periods of time, encouraging them to feel at ease. In normal times, that is ideal; a place that can feel like a comfortable salon for the professional athlete. During a pandemic, it seems like a petrie dish for the spread of the virus.

“Everyone comes in there sweaty; they’re close to each other,” said Travis Hollman, CEO of Hollman Inc., a locker room design company that has worked with several professional sports teams and college programs. “It has been an interesting spot for infection and disease, honestly, for a long, long time.”

This summer, however, that problem seems especially acute. Locker rooms and clubhouses are no longer respites from the outside world but another potential source of trouble. What each sport does with them will be another point in risk management.

Hollman has been dealing with that for years, trying to build spaces that can both be hospitable to teams and remain clean. In recent years, there have been MRSA outbreaks in the NFL, spawned in locker rooms, along with the usual hygiene and cleanliness issues.

The coronavirus, however, presents a dilemma like no other. His company has been at work over the last few months trying to workshop solutions of some sort, but he knows that it will have to walk a line.

“For the team sports, that camaraderie, that togetherness is a lot of what makes the team great,” he said. “We’d rather try to engineer and keep that space a sacred place. Let’s make that place as safe as we can, but we also want to maintain the energy level that they would have in that place.”

James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James in the locker room during NBA All-Star weekend. (Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

The NBA has only a handful of mentions of locker rooms in their league-issued protocols. They scrape at the problem.

The league asks that teams try to minimize time spent at facilities during Phase 3 of the return, over the first third of July in Orlando, and think about discouraging or preventing players from showering and changing there as a way to limit exposure. If they don’t, then teams should put restrictions on the number of people allowed in the locker room at once and how long they can be there — and if there are multiple people there, they must be at least 12 feet apart. Further rules will come when the league restarts games, including how many staff members can be in the locker room before, during and after games.

In every way, that is anathema to the pre-coronavirus point of the locker room. During the season, basketball players arrive several hours before tip-off, lingering there, watching film, stretching, texting, talking, and walking in and out between workouts. In baseball, it’s normal for players to arrive four to five hours before first pitch, change at their lockers and use the clubhouse as a home base for all their pregame activities.

Now, that all seems problematic. Several studies on the spread of coronavirus have shown that indoor spaces with people in close proximity can make it easier for the virus to spread.

A change from that natural order would be drastic in some ways. It could force professional athletes to return to the ways of their youth, to ask them to shower at home and change before they get to the arena.

“I can see that being a big ask, but that’s really more of a question for players and coaches and what they would accept,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University’s school of public health.

“It will be a change to people’s lives. Everything that we’re going to be asked to do, certainly until there’s a vaccine, is going to be somewhat different.”

To solve the problem, leagues may have to get creative with the amount of time players spend together.

“Any type of plan that is going to reduce the duration of time and the physical proximity of people, especially in an enclosed space, is going to be helpful in this,” said Angela L. Rasmussen, a virologist and associate research scientist at Columbia University. “I can’t echo strongly enough that the central parts of this are always going to be testing and essentially a centralized sequestration.

“To a certain extent, when you’re playing a team sport or you’re doing something like ultimate fighting, you’re going to always have some kind of physical contact between people or at least some limited ability to practice physical distancing, so those measures to reduce as much as possible those other times that aren’t related to the sport being played, such as the locker room, seem like they would be beneficial. The core policy has to be about identifying infected cases and isolating them as quickly as possible.”

Hollman said he believes there are ways to help limit exposure through the locker rooms themselves. His company has been using anti-microbial material in lockers for years to help lower the risk of staph and bacterial infections, and he wants to use copper and silver plating on lockers because, he said, the virus does not live as long on those surfaces.

His company has already implemented design plans in other locker rooms they believe will prove useful in mitigating the spread of coronavirus, even if the original intent didn’t have the pandemic in mind yet. Hollman said that their construction of the Alabama football locker rooms will have, essentially, personal pods where players can use zero-grab chairs and burrow about 3 to 4 feet into cubbies to isolate from their teammates. It is, he said, akin to being inside a closet, because the program wanted a space where players could also take naps.

The Oakland A’s gather in the clubhouse during a position players meeting prior to a workout last October. (Michael Zagaris / Oakland Athletics / Getty Images)

There are also plans to create a self-cleaning locker room at Duke that Hollman said will be even more important now. The room would have self-locking doors that operate on a timer. When the doors close, the space would be blasted by UV light. Initially, the intent was to kill bacteria on uniforms and shoes and to sterilize the room during absent periods. There is some belief that UV lighting could help cleanse away the virus.

“We feel the locker room environment creates this team atmosphere, so we want to keep the environment as close to as what it is now as possible,” Hollman said. “We really think it’s going (to be done) with these lighting, with sterilization, with material use. It will get to us to a better locker room that people feel safer in.”

“We’re trying to engineer the virus out of the system,” he added.

All of these ideas, as Hollman noted, can only help so much. The nature of basketball and football, and sometimes baseball, involves human contact. The NBA will create an ecosystem that traps in hundreds of players, coaches and executives, then asks them to play inside an arena with no physical distancing; while Disney World employees enter and exit the bubble when they need to.

Locker rooms then will be about mitigation, not prevention.

Still, Binney said, every attempt to limit spread is important. But the ideal locker room is vastly different for an epidemiologist and a hard concept to organize. He and Rasmussen were asked what their ideal locker room would be in the time of coronavirus. Their responses, serious and cheeky, displayed the difficulty in creating safe environments for players.

“An airplane hangar where everybody is 50 feet away at all times,” he said. “I don’t know.”

“Since there are no fans, I’d turn the stadium into a locker room,” Rasmussen said. “You could have somebody getting ready in Section 1A and somebody getting ready in Section 1B. Ideally you’d have it be as ventilated as possible, so high ceilings are good ventilation … The real key would be having a lot of space so that it’s not enclosed.”

The key, again, is space and, if possible, open air. But rethinking the locker room could be just a first step. Sports could also use this time to change their workflow altogether.

Meetings might no longer be held in meeting rooms, like in the NFL, Binney said. Those could become virtual, to provide as much distancing as needed, or they could occur outside while everyone is wearing masks. If players need to use the locker room, they do so in shifts, and teams could convert other rooms into additional space.

“I think all of these things will be necessary,” Binney said. “With any of these details, you’re not going to get 100 percent adherence, but even if you get 80 percent adherence, that’s something. But it means that no one single thing is going to create a totally foolproof system. It’s all about doing everything you possibly can and stacking those things on top of each other, and, again, having a really strong testing or centralization sequestering plan.”

(Top photo of Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller in the locker room with his players during halftime of a 2019 WNBA Finals game: Khoi Ton / NBAE via Getty Images)


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