You Can't Sit Here: International Immigration and Attendance Concerns in Pro Sports
As a new season of professional sports begins, restrictions and laws related to COVID-19 are still governing international immigration procedures as well as sporting events attendance policies. Athletes are traveling from all over the world in preparation for their 2021 spring and summer seasons, and fans have high hopes to watch their favorite teams in person once again. However, even though the sports world shows strong promise in its operating power amidst COVID-19 concerns, athletes and fans are continually burdened by legal limitations surrounding the pandemic. This year, international athletes must abide by a series of protocols before immigrating to the U.S. which may impede their availability to compete.
Professional athletes immigrating to the United States are able to apply and receive P-1 temporary worker visas through the U.S. Department of State. The P-1 visa applies to any “Individual or Team Athlete, or Member of an Entertainment Group.” More specifically, the P-1 visa applies to an athlete if the individual is coming temporarily to the United States solely for the purpose of performing at a specific athletic competition as an individual athlete at an internationally recognized level of performance, or as part of a group or team at an internationally recognized level of performance. P-1 visas are typically secured by non-citizen professional athletes returning to the U.S. for competition, but recent laws enacted in response to COVID-19 limit the scope of permissible countries athletes are allowed to enter from.
President Biden, upon taking office this past January, delivered a string of executive orders to limit international travelers from crossing U.S. borders. In the interest preventing the spread of COVID-19, Biden suspended entry into the U.S. to five distinct regions of the world: the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa. These executive orders remain in effect until the President terminates them, and they are subject to continuation, modification, or termination at the final day of each calendar month. Most notably, noncitizens who were physically present in the listed regions during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the U.S. have their entry restricted or suspended. As long as immigration restrictions remain in place, athletes from the listed countries may experience hardships in attempting to reenter the U.S. in time for their season. In addition, fans expecting to travel to foreign countries to attend sports games could face similar immigration issues. To make matters worse, one sports league has already encountered an athlete work visa denial ahead of competition.
Coming Back Too "SoOn"
The fourth season of Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League (OWL), an e-sports league, is set to begin on April 16th, 2021. After beginning last season with in-person matches, the league moved entirely online for the remainder of its 2020 season. This year, the league plans to continue online competition and split its teams into two regional groups based on location. Even though players will be showcasing their abilities online once more, players are still required to travel to their team’s headquarters where they will remain for the entirety of the season.  For example, the Philadelphia Fusion, one of the top North American teams, has a roster full of international players hailing from countries with U.S. travel restrictions. In response, the Fusion opted to operate from South Korea, where half of their roster resides. Unlike Philadelphia, some U.S.-based teams have chosen to remain in their home cities for their 2021 skirmishes. Unfortunately for the Boston Uprising, that choice came with a cost.
The Uprising signed veteran Terence “SoOn” Tarlier in free agency this past winter, but will be unable to utilize the Frenchman’s unique and accurate point-and-shoot abilities this year. On April 6th, Boston announced SoOn’s release due to visa issues. Presumably, Boston sought a P-1 visa for SoOn’s services, and alternatively may have applied for a H-2B visa. To secure a H-2B, an international athlete’s sponsoring team must obtain a labor certification from the Department of Labor to temporarily hire a nonimmigrant worker to perform nonagricultural labor or services in the United States. Additionally, a petitioner for a H-2B visa must show the service or labor for which it seeks workers is (1) traditionally tied to a season of the year by an event or pattern; and (2) of a recurring nature. Considering the H-2B requirements, it seems likely that Boston would succeed in securing a H-2B visa for its international players due to the annual spring commencement of the Overwatch League. However, U.S. Department of State policy states that a visa application may be denied if “the information reviewed indicates the applicant falls within the scope of one of the inadmissibility or ineligibility grounds of the law.”
Given SoOn’s French origin and the fact that France is subject to restricted entry to the U.S. as part of the Schengen Area, SoOn’s visa application may have been denied which resulted in his inability to enter the U.S. to join his fellow Uprising teammates. In fact, Tarlier himself stated that his visa complications were, in popular gamer slang, “unlucky”. Tarlier added that his visa process began months ago, but has not progressed. Moreover, Tarlier was informed that an international player on a North America-based team who does not obtain a visa is prohibited from playing in OWL matches from home via internet connection. This particular visa denial cuts two ways: Boston is forced to proceed without its star free agent and Tarlier is likely to remain unsigned heading into the 2021 season.
Other Fan Travel and Attendance Policies
COVID-19 restrictions on travel and gathering have affected sport on both the international and state level. On March 20th, a joint meeting between the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Organizing Committee Tokyo 2020, the Japanese government, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) concluded that overseas spectators will not be allowed to attend the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Citing COVID-19 international travel restrictions, the IOC and IPC stated that it is unlikely for foreign spectators to gain entry into Japan. The announcement serves a tough blow to sports fans around the globe. Olympic athletes will certainly be subject to health protocols upon arrival in Japan. The Tokyo Games have already been suspended a full year and are scheduled to begin on July 23rd, but if Japan continues to uphold travel restrictions the games might not even take place. Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, stated that there is no “Plan B” if the games are cancelled again. Further, a Japanese newspaper poll found that 61% of respondents believed the Olympics should be cancelled or postponed, while 28% were in favor of the games proceeding with no spectators. It remains to be known if Japanese nationals will be able to attend the Olympic events in any capacity, but IOC and Japanese government officials are slated to decide venue capacities and spectator protocols by the end of April.
A striking contrast to the precaution exhibited in Tokyo, the Texas Rangers decided to open their stadium’s doors to the masses to celebrate MLB’s Opening Day. On March 2nd, Texas governor Greg Abbot lifted state restrictions limiting the number of occupants allowed inside a business. In response, Rangers team executives decided to fill Globe Life Field with “as many fans as we can this season.” The Rangers’ home opener on April 5th was the first full-capacity professional sports event of 2021 and was deemed a sell-out with 38,238 fans in attendance. The Rangers’ decision to pack the house drew criticism both from the media and from President Biden, who called the decision “not responsible” and “a mistake.” However, per the Rangers Fan Code of Conduct, fans attending Rangers games are required to wear masks around the stadium except when eating or drinking in their seats. Other MLB teams are taking a more careful approach to accepting in-person spectators. For example, the reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers are mandating face-coverings for fans and restricting Dodger Stadium to 20% capacity, with attendance limited to California residents. As the sports world attempts to return to normal, teams, organizations, and fans will have to navigate choppy waters in order to travel to and attend their favorite sporting events in the future.
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