La Velle E. Neal III
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La Velle's 3-2 Pitch: Three observations and two predictions every Sunday.


In only the past week, the NHL announced that its players would not participate in the Olympics, the United States-Canada women's hockey exhibition game at Xcel Energy Center was canceled and Wolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns and Vikings running back Dalvin Cook were ruled out for their upcoming games.

These are all COVID-related decisions that have affected the local sports scene. The surging omicron variant is cutting a swath through the sports world.

But what's interesting — or perplexing, or troubling — is how professional sports leagues are now all over the spectrum of virus management with their health and safety protocols. Times have changed since March 2020, when sports leagues were unified with safety measures at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Here's a brief rundown of how some leagues are handling the pandemic:

Football: Infected? Vaccinated? No problem. Suit up.

Basketball: We're not shutting down! Sign replacement players! Who cares if Joe Johnson is 40 years old? Lace 'em up.

English Premier League soccer teams: This is madness! We need to shut down the league in the name of safety. The league: No.

Hockey: Pause the season! Go home for Christmas. Don't get infected, Wild and Blues players, we need the Winter Classic to go on!

Who's right? Who's wrong? Who's walking a fine line between what's practical and what's plausible? One would think that sports leagues would compare notes or commissioner-source some ideas on how to proceed safely, even if each sport has its own particular set of challenges.

The NHL has postponed 64 games after outbreaks among various teams — which reflects an abundance of caution. The NBA and Premier League have postponed games as well, but each league appears determined to navigate through the blizzard of infections. The NBA is looking to reduce the number of days an infected player has to quarantine, a reasonable approach based on data.

The NFL has determined that if a player's viral load is at a certain level, he's infected but not contagious and can play. Also, vaccinated players don't have to be tested unless they (wink, wink) self-report symptoms.

If you or I get sick, we're asked to isolate for 10 days.

Once again, the NFL is brandishing its shield and stopping at nothing to ensure its multi-billion-dollar machine operates at full throttle. Meanwhile, Texas A&M and Hawaii pulled out of bowl games because of positive tests, transfers and other developments.

Sports' place in society is unquestioned. We all want to watch and opine about the games. But the games should be played with health and safety a priority as we ride out the pandemic. Not all leagues appear to be doing so.

Big Ten test ahead

After the New Year, we'll find out exactly what the Gophers men's basketball team is made of when it runs into the Big Ten portion of the schedule.

But you have to like what you have seen so far.

After last year's team took way too many three-pointers — making just 28.4% of them — this group is sinking 36.5% from behind the arc.

Despite the new faces, this team takes care of the ball — except for the 28-turnover outbreak against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

The Gophers play pretty good defense and have been tough on the perimeter, holding opponents to 24.8% shooting on three-pointers.

Are these sustainable traits or numbers that will wither in the pressure cooker that is Big Ten basketball? Will a lack of size catch up with them? That remains to be seen. But these Gophers make you want to tune in to see where this goes.

Twins' Followell exits satisfied

Vern Followell was hired as an area scout by then-Twins scouting director Larry Corrigan before the 1989 season. Two seasons later, he was part of a World Series-winning organization. Followell thought he was at the right place at the right time — he just wished there had been a couple more trophies along the way.

Back in the days of the 3½-inch floppy disks, Followell helped develop a system into which scouts could feed their reports, a precursor to modern databases. He eventually moved into pro scouting and was widely respected throughout the league.

Now Followell, 64, is retiring after spending his entire career with the Twins.

"I feel lucky about that," Followell said. "We had some great times and fought through some things. I probably will miss the guys, talking about it, arguing about it. [But] it's a good time for me to go."


Cook's absence too much

The Vikings already faced a daunting task on Sunday in trying to stop Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald and the Rams. With Dalvin Cook out, it makes it even tougher. Rams win 30-20.

They'll be great outdoors

A Wild team excited to play an outdoors hockey game at Target Field will dominate the Winter Classic from start to finish and down St. Louis 5-2 to start the new year on a winning note.