By Karolos Grohmann
ATHENS (Reuters) - Professional athletes across the world should not be rushed back to action once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, and they must have a strong say in determining the conditions for their return, the World Players Association said on Tuesday.
Sports competitions around the world have come to a screeching halt this year as the virus spreads across the globe, starving clubs, leagues and federations of revenues and putting tens of thousands of professional athletes on hold.
"At the moment there is a lot of pressure from the leagues on all continents to resume," WPA Executive Director Brendan Schwab told Reuters in an interview.
"The players can only agree to that (return) if they know that their interests will be protected. The best approach we are seeing is when the leagues... set up joint groups where players have an equal say,... where they are not being rushed."
Several football leagues in Europe, including Germany's Bundesliga, have drawn up their plans to be ready to resume play without spectators if it means finishing the season and remaining contractually in order with broadcasters and sponsors.
The WPA, an association representing some 85,000 athletes around the world through more than 100 player associations in over 60 countries, held a conference call earlier on Tuesday with its affiliated associations to update on the situation.
It is unclear what kind of influence the players or the WPA as a whole can yield with cash-strapped clubs and federations desperate for a return to action both on a national and international level.
However, the athletes' growing influence in global decision-making in sport was felt last month when their vocal opposition to competing in the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year contributed to a postponement of the Games to 2021.
The pandemic has infected almost 3 million people worldwide and killed more than 200,000, raising expectations of a prolonged battle to contain it.
Every major sports event has been postponed and seasons across all sports have been suspended creating a competition backlog, with the Tokyo Games' move to 2021 further reshuffling the sports calendar next year.
Schwab said any return to action would also need to clarify issues including testing, any potential future interruption if the virus flares up again and that the infection of a player will be treated as a workplace injury by the clubs.
Career-ending or fatal illness due to the virus should have the full protection "of this being a workplace injury," Schwab said. "This is not clear yet in a lot of the leagues."
Testing would also need to be adapted to the various sports with some, such as tennis or cricket, requiring fewer tests than contact sports such as basketball or football that would require extensive pre- and post-game testing, he said.
Several nations' laboratories are working to find protective vaccines and drugs for the disease, but it could be many months before they become widely available due to the need for exhaustive clinical trials of their effectiveness and safety.
"Any return to play scenario would also need to have a strong plan B," said Schwab as were no guarantees the seasons would finish once they restarted.
"The situation is still fluid and interruptions need to be considered," Schwab said.
"What is critical is that all player associations have the strongest possible position at the bargaining table so they can get the balance right between economic viability and public and player health."
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Christian Radnedge)