Major League Lacrosse had driven “85%” up to the finish line in its eight-day tournament, as commissioner Alexander “Sandy” Brown put it. That is, until three players tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday.
The league canceled its semifinals on Saturday and both the Chesapeake Bayhawks and Connecticut Hammerheads, who had been set to face one another that afternoon, pulled out of the tournament.
Sunday’s championship game went on as scheduled, however. Attackman John Uppgren scored five goals and assisted another as the Boston Cannons captured the championship by defeating the Denver Outlaws, 13-10, in a game that was originally a semifinal matchup.
Like many leagues starting back up over the summer, such as the NBA and WNBA, MLL developed a “bubble” of two spaces — the Westin Hotel and Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium — to align with local health guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic. Within that space, most social distancing and other precautions were supposed to be followed rigidly.
Some of them naturally slipped.
“We’re dealing in uncharted waters, all of us are, and we’re trying to do the best we can,” Brown said. “... I don’t know what more we could have done to make sure these guys were safe.”
Five Cannons players left the “bubble” Saturday and did not compete in Sunday’s game. Franky Brown wrote in a tweet, “COVID-19 is terrifying. The thought that I could contract the virus or give it to someone else while not knowing is terrifying. That being said, I made the decision to leave Annapolis yesterday and not compete in today’s game.”
About a half hour before game time, vans shuttled players in groups of four or five to the stadium, and vice versa postgame. Each van received a full cleaning detail before accepting new passengers.
Back at the hotel, players received individually packaged meals. They arranged different times to be seen by athletic staff in a converted hotel conference room. Each of MLL’s six teams stayed on separate floors of the Westin in an attempt to limit player interaction.
No one, of course, was supposed to leave the “bubble.”
For that, Brown questioned, “why does anyone need to go anywhere?”
The league relied on its players not to leave the bubble in good faith. It wasn’t as if they locked the hotel rooms, MLL director of marketing Carrie Gamper said.
Players from different teams were not always separate, varying from chatting between opposing players at the stadium, unmasked, to the “Bud Light tent.”
The hospitality area, sponsored by the beer company, had about 15 to 20 tables and Adirondack chairs in the plaza directly outside the Westin Hotel. Players would come down, grab a beer, hang out. They wear masks, except when they’re drinking. For Bayhawks rookie Grant Maloof, a South River graduate, it served as a chance to catch some time with other former Towson teammates, who play for other teams.
“It’s for teams that have off,” Chesapeake Bayhawks goalie Brian Phipps said on Thursday. “We go there a little bit postgame. It’s not bad, we kind of hang out, but it’s at the hotel, it’s confined.”
Though members of opposing teams were not supposed to mingle, the distance between the chairs and tables made it more coronavirus safe, Gamper said.
“There is some mixing, but by and large, at game’s end, the teams that played each other are the only ones who might see each other, or teams that have byes the next day, are down there,” Gamper said on Friday. “We’re only looking at one to two teams.”
Hotel life reminded fourth-year Bayhawks attack Colin Heacock, a Catonsville native and Boys’ Latin graduate, a lot of college, like eating with his teammates and hanging out.
“You’re with your team 24/7. ... Usually, when it’s a team thing, we do the Zoom calls. Aside from that, we do hang out,” Heacock said on Thursday. “... We’re all on the same floor, we’re all next door to each other. We always see each other.”
The league did not test players throughout the week. Every player had been required to hand negative results to the MLL before traveling for to Annapolis for the tournament.
Phipps’ most recent was taken on July 6. It took about a week to receive a result.
Maloof had his done at a local CVS drive-thru during Fourth of July weekend. He received his negative result a week later as well.
“It kind of had me worried,” Maloof said. “I know one of my buddies [another local MLL player] also took it a day after me at CVS and he didn’t get his back until a day before we got here.”
Brown intended to give the players as much of a window as possible to receive test results, given the varying nature of wait times of a few days to almost two weeks. Still, MLL had to ship overnight kits from Colorado-based lung cancer diagnostic solutions company Biodesix to multiple players and coaches who had not received their results yet just before the tournament’s start.
Per Brown, 99.1% of all players who’d underwent coronavirus testing before traveling to the tournament had come back negative.
The league administered temperature checks to players twice a day, according to the commissioner. The player who tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday morning who experienced symptoms had shown no elevated temperature when checked before playing throughout the week.
“If he’d shown up at the stadium with an elevated temperature, he would have been pulled out immediately. … We would have quarantined them right then and there. But that wasn’t the case,” Brown said.
Even for those who remained in the “bubble,” it wasn’t easy.
For local players like Phipps and Maloof, the temptation to visit home existed. As far as maintaining to the protocols, slips occurred.
Players, even security and staff, slipped masks off here and there. Members of one team walked past members of the other team chilling in individual ice baths postgame, some of whom are unmasked.
“Sometimes you forget, whether it’s wearing the mask, trying to remember that. You say, ‘Oh, let’s go down the street and get some food,’ and you kind of have to remember there’s protocols for that,” Heacock said.
The three Bayhawks players that spoke to The Capital said that they never left the bubble.
“We’re here for a reason. We’re taking this time out of our lives to be here,” Phipps said. “We’re here to win, but more importantly to be safe and respectful because we can affect everybody else in the bubble and our family back home.”
Gamper said that if a player did go rogue, the emergency protocol was to ask the player to leave.
“I’m not aware of players leaving the bubble,” Brown said.
The fact that only three players of 160 tested individuals returned positive encouraged Brown.
“I really applaud our players and I think it’s indicative that you see in the number of tests we did and the number of positive tests that we had,” Brown said. “Our players, as I’ve said all along, have comported themselves as constant professionals and they’ve handled it as such here.”
The “bubble” continues for another member of the Bayhawks.
Chesapeake coach Tom Mariano hails from Connecticut and his family lives in New York, two states that now require those traveling from Maryland to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
“Oh, this is awesome,” the coach said sarcastically. “I’ll see them. When I get home, I’ll get a COVID test. If you’re negative, you can end your quarantine sooner. Connecticut does that, New York does that. Problem is, can you get the test back fast?”
MLL collaborated with other professional sports leagues when it designed its protocol. Brown said the used the protocol used by the German soccer league Bundesliga was the inspiration and starting point.
“I consulted with my colleagues, [commissioners] Adam Silver at the NBA and Lisa Baird at the NWSL. It’s all about sharing best practices. As professional leagues, we’re all trying to find a better mousetrap,” Brown said.