Not all sports are played in bubbles.
As wildfires burned across the western US and smoke polluted the air in August and September, the National Football League (NFL), Major League Soccer (MLS) and Major League Baseball (MLB) played on. Now, with fires in Colorado and Utah, college football players are battling the smoke: last week’s Colorado State football practice took place with an Air Quality Index above 300, higher than the threshold of what is considered safe.
There is no need to mince words. Raging wildfires cause poor air quality, and these are open-air sports. Poor air quality puts athletes at risk.
The United States’ National Weather Service’s (NWS) Air Quality Index – or AQI – measures air pollution on a scale of one to 500. A normal healthy AQI is in the 50-100 range. Between 100 and 200 is considered unhealthy and prolonged exposure to the outdoors is not recommended. Conditions get progressively worse above 200, which is the number the NFL and NCAA have adopted as the threshold for cancelling games.
Researchers established long ago that athletes are at higher risk of inhaling smoke and pollutants because during physical activity, more air is inhaled through the mouth, bypassing the nasal filtration systems and further increasing the amount of polluted air ingested. Pollutants are also inhaled more deeply during physical activity and may diffuse into the bloodstream more quickly. Anyone who’s ever played high exertion sports at any level could tell you that you take in a lot more air.
These risks are even more severe for athletes with pre-existing conditions, especially asthma, respiratory issues, or cardiac health problems. This year, some athletes may also be contending with Covid-19 symptoms or post-Covid syndrome, which also compromise the respiratory system. The popular assumption that athletes’ elite form and fitness protects them from illness is reversed when it comes to air pollution: playing sports puts athletes more at risk, not less.
The wildfire scare impacting professional sports this season is not new, and it’s not going away.
The AQI threshold for sports ought to be lower than the current 200 number to protect athlete health. Or rather, more flexibility ought to be built into the policy. As my colleague, Dr. Nick Watanabe at the University of South Carolina, frequently reminds me: “What’s the difference between an AQI of 199 and 200? Basically nothing.”
Poor air quality also impacts athlete and referee performance on the field. Smoke, smog, and fire-orange skies compromise visibility, to the detriment of players and referees trying to follow the play. Research has shown that both players and athletes are susceptible to poorer performance when playing in poor air, which can have detrimental effects on the overall quality of the game. The best games don't happen on smoky fields.
The wildfire scare impacting professional sports this season is not new, and it’s not going away. Wildfires are likely to continue as climate change worsens.
NFL games have been impacted by smoke in the past, most recently in 2018 when the Camp Fire enveloped the San Francisco 49ers’ Santa Clara stadium in a haze for a game against the New York Giants. During that game, athletes were seen on the sidelines with oxygen tanks. That same weekend in 2018, the Oakland Raiders experienced similar smoke effects during their game against the San Diego Chargers. Despite visible signs of danger, the games continued.
Professional sports leagues in America have been criticized in the past for having too strong of a ‘play at all costs’ mentality. It has been brought up in discussions about concussions, freezing temperatures, and of course, COVID. Now is the time to add wildfires and poor air quality to the list of player health and performance concerns that go overlooked.
New York giants player Odell Beckham Jr. receives oxygen on the sideline during a game played near California's 'Camp Fire' in 2018 (NFL.com)
Cancelling a game comes at a high economic price: the cost of travel, media arrangements, and facility use are exorbitant and league officials would prefer not to lose their investment. Rescheduling games can be equally expensive and complicated, especially on a tight schedule and in an already compromised season due to Covid-19. But for a league with a three-year average player career length, and a sport with declining participation rates at child and youth levels, protecting player health should be tantamount to increasing revenues.
Bad policies (or no policies) on AQI is a problem across professional sports leagues. For its part, MLS has heat policies that include heat breaks during games, but has not published air quality policies. MLB has no specific air quality policy, relying instead on the judgment and advice of local health officials. The NCAA has a policy for AQI monitoring and adaptations, put in place two years ago. According to the policy, at 150, activity should be shortened and sensitive athletes moved indoors. Like the NFL, the NCAA policy doesn’t call for rescheduling or moving a game unless the AQI hits 200.
After a team practice in early September, Kyle Shanahan, head coach of the 49ers, said: “I feel like I’m in the book of Eli, it’s like an apocalyptic state out there”. Meanwhile, too few coaches and team staff know to monitor air quality. ESPN recently interviewed Sean McVay, head coach of the LA Rams, and asked if he’s keeping an eye on the air quality in Los Angeles. His response: “Uh, should I be?”
Wildfires and smoke are expected to worsen in the coming months and years. Wildfire season extends until November under normal conditions, though it is becoming increasingly clear this year’s fire season is anything but normal. If professional sports leagues want to preserve their athletes’ health and the quality of play on the field, it’s time to set better, more flexible AQI standards and enforce them.
Dr. Madeleine Orr is an assistant professor of sport management at SUNY Cortland and founder of the Sport Ecology Group. Follow her on Twitter @maddyjorr.