The world’s no. 1 ranked men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, recently followed Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams in withdrawing from the Miami Open. Interestingly, while Federer, Nadal and Williams cited injuries as their reason for pulling out, Djokovic instead blamed COVID-19 restrictions, which would have kept him apart from his family. His withdrawal serves as a timely reminder of the disruptive effect the pandemic continues to have not just on tennis, but on almost every professional sport worldwide.

It is now more than a year since COVID-19 brought competitions grinding to a halt. The return of sport has inevitably faced difficulties, with safety concerns needing to be reconciled with the economic necessity of ensuring teams remain afloat and jobs are preserved. Since the beginning of 2020, sporting regulatory bodies have had to deal with the legal, financial and commercial repercussions of a global health crisis, and in response have created guidelines, protocols and/or rules for participants of their sport to follow to ensure safe environments are maintained.

Against this backdrop, it is intriguing to examine the approaches taken to ensure compliance.

While some sports have taken a strict approach (for example the NFL, which fined the Baltimore Ravens $250,000 for failing to contain a COVID-19 outbreak) others have been more lenient. In tennis, US star Sam Querrey withdrew from the St Petersburg Open after contracting COVID-19, only to breach government quarantine rules and leave Russia on his private jet. Querrey was only given a suspended fine – which is notable given tennis had already seen the effects of failing to control COVID-19 following the cancellation of Djokovic’s now infamous exhibition Adria Tour. 

The reasons why sporting bodies take different approaches range from financial and commercial pressures to player power – with the latter most evident in the contrasting approaches taken by the NBA to COVID-19 breaches by James Harden (at the time with the Houston Rockets) and Danuel House Jr (see article below for further discussion).

In one of the biggest steps towards returning to ‘normality’ taken to date by professional sports, the NBA has recently announced its updated protocols for fully vaccinated players and team staff, which would allow them to be mask-free in practice facilities and exempt from quarantine following exposure to COVID-19. With vaccines being increasingly distributed, the hope is that the disruptive effect of the pandemic will start to decrease – although sporting bodies continuing to proactively regulate breaches of COVID-19 protocols will be key in limiting any such interruption.

This article is a summary of an in-depth analysis written by Freshfields that appeared in the LawInSport journal (paywall). If you’re interested in the longer piece, please visit LawInSport or email gino.murugesan@freshfields.com.

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