Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League remained noncommittal about a timeline for getting back on their respective fields of play following the sixth meeting of their joint task force on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, with officials from both leagues seemingly resigned to playing behind closed doors when their competitions are able to resume.
Tohoku Medical and Pharmaceutical University professor Mitsuo Kaku, leader of the task force’s medical panel, said the two weeks that have elapsed since the Japanese government declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures — which has since been expanded to cover the entire nation — has not provided the time needed to collect enough data for the leagues to come to any decisive conclusions. The state of emergency is in effect until May 6, though the task force does not expect it to be lifted then. The government will reexamine whether or not the order should be extended early next month.
“We’re seeing a decrease in the number of new patients but our medical facilities are facing very difficult situations,” Kaku said.
Earlier this month, NPB delayed the start of its season again and the J. League scrapped plans to resume its current campaign, with both leagues now hoping to play in June.
The government’s own medical experts on Wednesday described the country as being at a “critical point” in its progress toward slowing the spread of the coronavirus. It urged the public to reduce close-contact situations by 80 percent through a number of countermeasures including wearing masks, telework and avoiding peak shopping hours at supermarkets.
NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito and J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai acknowledged the possibility of returning to action without crowds initially, citing the example of Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, which began its regular season in empty stadiums on April 12 and South Korea’s Korea Baseball Organization, which is preparing to do the same on May 5, with the country’s professional soccer league to follow soon after.
“We want to help cheer up the nation by delivering pro sports to all of the children watching on TV or on the internet,” Saito said. “Even if we have to play behind closed doors, our desire to start the season hasn’t changed.”
Added Murai: “As the state of emergency is wound down, starting without fans is the most reasonable option, because when we consider travel we have to take into account the different rates of infection in each region. We have to think about the safety of our fans.”
Kaku said that while the leagues and task force were working to prepare detailed protocols and guidelines for players, staff and their families, the joint task force would also use other professional leagues as reference points going forward.
“We would like to share information with leagues that begin their seasons ahead of (NPB and J. League),” Kaku said. “Right now, Major League Baseball and soccer leagues in Europe have steadily been proceeding on their own measures (to start their seasons). We shall share information with them and think about what we should do.”
Kaku and his colleagues stressed that both leagues would need to receive support and understanding from both national and local governments, as well as the general public, in order to kick off their campaigns.
“While this state of emergency continues and the public is asked to restrain from social activities, if (NPB and the J. League) start playing under such circumstances, the players could come under criticism,” said Aichi Medical University professor Hiroshige Mikamo. “But what if this declaration is ended? We will have to prepare for it.”
As the task force continues to form strategies to ensure the physical safety of players and officials when both leagues eventually resume, it is also evaluating the mental health needs of players.
Earlier this week, FIFPRO, the global union for soccer players, called for clubs to provide greater psychological care after finding that 13 percent of male players and 22 percent of female players had reported symptoms of depression due to uncertainty over the future.
Former national team forward Ryuji Bando — who is participating in the joint task force in his capacity as a specially appointed member of the J. League’s board of directors — advocated for those needs to be addressed during Thursday’s meeting, according to Murai.
“As the J. League, we recognize that some of our players and their families are worried for a variety of different reasons and some of them might not be able to sleep at night, yet they might not be able to report that to their team doctors and other officials,” Murai said. “So right now we are working on setting up a point of contact for them.”
Murai added that his league would like to keep cooperating with medical specialists and other Japanese sports leagues, noting the presence of psychologists at clubs in Spain and elsewhere overseas.
“I think it’s a very important thing,” he said.
Following the meeting of the joint task force, both leagues held meetings with their respective club representatives Thursday afternoon to brief them on what had been discussed.
The next joint task force meeting is scheduled on May 11, with Saito saying NPB is hoping to be able to set the date for its opening day around that time.