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Can Fully Vaccinated People Play Team Sports?

Young white woman in a soccer uniform wearing a face mask; her teammates are blurred in the background.

Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • As more people become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, some people are wondering if it's safe to go back to playing team sports.
  • Different sports have different risk levels based on proximity and exertion. Locker rooms and shared equipment are some of the highest risk factors to consider.
  • Experts say that you will need to weigh the value of engaging in sports against the risk of infection.

On any given Sunday afternoon in 2019, it would have been common to see pickup soccer or basketball games occur throughout the country. The COVID-19 pandemic quickly curbed our play. Random exposure, even outside, halted casual sports and even professional teams.

Now that more people are getting fully vaccinated, is it safe to go back to team sports? The answer is tricky, and experts say that the decision will be individual.

Immunologist Robert Quigley, MD, D.Phil, F.A.C.S., senior vice president and global medical director of International SOS, tells Verywell that outdoor, non-contact sports should be relatively safe for vaccinated people.

"I've always been a firm believer that if you're outside, the likelihood of spreading the disease is markedly reduced," Quigley says. "When you're outside and running around, not staying in the proximity of other people for 15 minutes, it's even further reduced."

Although vaccination reduces the risk of getting COVID-19, it does not rule out the possibility of becoming infected. Quigley says that the decision to engage in sports or other social activities should be based on each person's "risk appetite."

Quigley says that without sterilizing immunity, nothing is 100%. For voluntary intramural sports, parents and players will need to look at the environment of the game to begin assessing the risks of engaging.

Kristopher Paultre, MD

Your best bet is playing with people you know and can trust.

— Kristopher Paultre, MD

They'll also need to consider the consequences of infection if they were to contract the virus from someone during a game. For example, even if you're playing outside with friends, does anyone present have an immunocompromised family member at home?

Play in Your Pod

Kristopher Paultre, MD, a sports medicine physician at the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute, tells Verywell that playing sports outside reduces the risks. However, he still advises that you stay within your pod or wear a mask.

"Is it less likely to contract COVID-19 playing outside? Yes. But the truth is, the data out there now isn't sufficient enough to say how much," Paultre says. "Your best bet is playing with people you know and can trust."

What About League Sports?

League sports might be safer to play beyond your pod. Each league should be instituting safety practices to inform members of possible infections.

Many leagues have also stuck to smaller scrimmages that allow team members to stay within a circle of people that they know. However, without regular testing (as academic and professional sports have), there's no guarantee of safety.

Risks Differ Between Activities

Paultre adds that not all sports are created equal—even according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In guidance released in late December, the CDC recommended assessing the risk of transmission based on your proximity to other players during gameplay, the intensity of the sport, the location (indoors or outdoors), and how much you touch shared equipment.

Kristopher Paultre, MD

I think we need to look at the question, what is the psychological impact of not letting those young people participate in sports?

— Kristopher Paultre, MD

Paultre says that these guidelines have helped guide professionals as they regulate youth sports—which are typically played by healthy athletes who are too young to qualify for the vaccines.

"The first thing we did was classify the sports," Paultre says. "For example, we have football, basketball, and wrestling, which are high-risk sports. Intermediate and lower risk sports are golf, tennis, baseball, etc., because people are so far apart most of the time. So, just know your risk levels."

Pre- and Post-Game Risks

Although the focus has been on the gameplay aspect of sports as a transmission risk, Paultre and Quigley agree that the greater area of risk is actually before and after the game.

"Another thing that we forget is the amount of necessary touching with shared equipment like balls, bats, racquets, and mats," Paultre says. "Sanitizing things as well as possible is key."

Professional sports have always had rigorous cleaning protocols to protect players from staph infections. Academic and league teams have been increasing hygiene protocols to a level that Paultre hopes will remain post-pandemic.

For many high school athletic programs, getting to and from games has become a challenge in the pandemic world; busing an entire team to an away game is a risk that no team is willing to take. Paultre says that within the intercollegiate campus system, travel for sports has shut down.

Is It Safe to Watch Games?

Spectators are another risk group to think about. Even if you aren't planning on hitting the court or field yourself, you might wonder whether it's safe to go watch a child's little league game or cheer your friends on during a pick-up basketball game at the park.

"I think that's the even bigger risk," Paultre says. "If someone is going out there because they really want to play competitively, they will control many of their behaviors off the field. But the spectators are often standing shoulder to shoulder, and that's a much bigger concern."

Weighing the Risks and Rewards

Quigley says that for many people who are enduring the psychological effects of the pandemic—whether vaccinated adults or unvaccinated youth—sports offer benefits that may rival the risks.

"I think we need to look at the question, what is the psychological impact of not letting those young people participate in sports?" Quigley says. "The CDC is lightening up and letting young people go back to school because they realize that very few young people are really getting sick when they are infected. It all has to be put into perspective."

If the players and spectators follow social distancing guidelines and support staff continue to enforce rigorous hygiene standards with high touch areas and items, Quigley says that the risk of transmission should stay remarkably low.

When everyone plays by the "new" rules of pandemic life, pros and amateurs alike can get back the physical and psychological benefits of participating in team sports.

What This Means For You

No activity is without risk when it comes to COVID-19, but once you're fully vaccinated (two weeks after your second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine), experts say that you can enjoy outdoor sports with minimal risk.

Professionals still recommend playing with people that you know and trust who have also been fully vaccinated. Take extra precautions with shared equipment like bats, balls, and safety gear—make sure that you sterilize everything.

When you're in group settings, like a locker room, stay socially distant if possible and wear a mask if not.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Considerations for youth sports administrators. Updated December 31, 2020.