“Now what?” sports fans ask. For three glorious days, there was an actual, scheduled sporting event in America. The 2020 NFL draft not only drew ridiculously high TV ratings, it lifted the collective murkiness that the coronavirus pandemic has draped over a nation that loves its balls, baskets, tackles and goals. Football teams made their selections. Football fans debated them. Football analysts overanalyzed them. Yes! Business as usual!
But this morning, it’s The Big Empty. The draft is over. And all that’s left on the sports calendar is another episode of an ESPN documentary about a basketball season that finished, ahem, 22 years ago.
Now what? The twisting debate over how and when sports will return is like fumbling with a Rubik’s Cube that has no actual solution. You think you’re getting close, but then — boom. Wrong color comes up.
Let’s review what we know for sure. Fans are out. Even the most optimistic health projections suggest a vaccine for the masses won’t be coming this calendar year, which means crowds of 20,000 (basketball) 40,000 (baseball) or 100,0000 (college football) can’t be contemplated. The proximity of seats, from bleachers to luxury boxes, would never allow safe social distancing, and the idea of spreading seats out (really?) still doesn’t account for turnstiles, food stands, elevators, etc.
Realistically, we need to accept that perhaps no event that draws a sizable crowd will be accepting fans before we get through the winter, when the virus is expected to surge again. Ask yourself, in our current level of contagiousness, would you sit in section 103, seat 12, at a Detroit Lions game? Mask or no mask?
(By the way, a word about masks. Research suggests they only “help” reduce the spread of a virus. Nobody claims they stop it. You are not impervious to breathing in germs while wearing most masks. And the homemade versions, which would dominate at a sporting event, are the least effective of all.)
So if crowds are out, where does that leave sports?
Troubleshooting our options
Well, poorer, for one. While TV revenues dominate big time games, ticket sales still account for around 37% of the NHL’s money, 30% in baseball, 22% in NBA basketball, and 15% in the NFL. The figures vary year to year, but it’s a significant chunk of the pie.
Would owners want to operate under such reduced intake (remember, no stadium merchandise sales either), or would they rather shut down operations and use a force majeure clause not to pay the players? Some leagues have already reduced payroll by a certain percentage, in hopes they can salvage part of the season. But what if no season is better than a fanless one?
Let’s say, for discussion purposes, they plow ahead. Let’s play ball! OK. How do they pull it off?
Even if you have players in empty venues, they still have to get there (airplanes), stay somewhere (hotels) and interact with a minimal number of non-teammates (equipment men, trainers, stadium personnel).
If these players are coming back and forth from home, they are transporting whatever germs they might be exposed to with them. As soon as one player tests positive for COVID-19, can a team, in good conscience, continue playing? Or does it shut down, as the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert’s positive test shut down his team and quickly the league?
Let’s face it. Even without fans, you have players tackling, checking, and generally sweating all over one another. The only way disease doesn’t get spread under those conditions is if you have a controlled environment.
Which means locking the players in somewhere.
This is not impossible. You could, in theory, create an Olympic village of sorts by taking over abandoned college campuses, playing on their fields, and controlling who goes in or out. But you’d need to include referees, groundskeepers, training staff, etc. If they’re all willing to stay there (hey, certain workers locked themselves in their plants for a month to continue production) then in theory, you’ve created a huge shelter-in-place environment.
But would players go for that? Even if the NBA wanted to do four weeks of playoffs this way, just to finish the 2019-20 season, would LeBron James or James Harden be willing to lock away from their families for all that time?
And what about getting the athletes back in shape? From baseball to basketball, experts have warned that returning players too quickly risks serious injuries. So you need weeks of training camp, presumably someplace that doesn’t run the same risks we just mentioned.
NFL football benefits from being further down the schedule. But it’s the behemoth of all pro sports, with the most players, the most coaches, the largest support groups, etc. And it normally starts right when flu season picks up. Would the NFL forego all its minicamps and training camps? How then do coaches whittle 80-plus players down to a 53-man roster?
And speaking of coaches, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Bruce Arians of the NFL are in their late 60s. Joe Maddon, of baseball’s L.A. Angels, is in his mid-60s. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is 71. Coach K at Duke is 73.
Given the dangers of COVID-19 to older people, is it even realistic to ask them to take part in anything this risky?
Hope springs …
College sports. Let’s talk about them. Forgetting, for a moment, the massive size of a college football roster (sometimes more than 100 players), there’s a bigger question: can a college team play if the college is not open? We still don’t know if campuses will be holding in-person classes in the fall. And college athletes — from lacrosse to swimming to hockey to soccer — are not under contract. If their parents don’t want them there, many won’t be there.
Even the idea of playing certain college sports without crazy fans and student sections seems hollow. Some have floated the idea of pushing college football to next spring. And given how much money the sport brings into a university, there may be merit to that. In fact, pushing all fall sports to the spring may wind up being the only realistic approach.
But this raises questions about time between the 2021 season and, well, the 2021 season. Don’t athletes require recovery time? What health and injury issues do you create by jamming two seasons into one year?
Rubik’s cube. Keeps coming up the wrong color.
Now, the news is not all bleak. Certain sports have a chance of proceeding. Golf, for example, seems doable, with new rules about physical distance between the players and caddies. No fans, of course. But hey. Golfers always want it quiet anyhow. Wish granted.
The Masters and U.S. Open and PGA Championship could happen in theory. Of course, getting international players to play might be a problem. What if the golfers are coming from hot-zone countries? Would they have to quarantine for 14 days? Would we really make exceptions at our borders for athletes?
Same holds true for tennis. It certainly seems safe enough to be across a net and keep your distance in a locker room. But what about all the countries represented at a Wimbledon or French Open? How do you handle that?
Twisting the cube …
So there’s the conundrum. And let’s be frank: The bottom line isn’t how can we do it, but should we do it? Are sports that important to run all these risks?
The truth is, when it comes to professional teams, the participants are among the less distressed people in the country. Owners certainly don’t need financial help (Jerry Jones did the draft from his yacht). Players and coaches all average at least six- or seven-figure salaries. When it comes to industries that need to be rushed back to survive, pro sports — compared to small businesses, small manufacturing, restaurants, etc — is way down the list. Only the stadium personnel, concession workers and security forces warrant financial concern. And some athletes and owners have generously donated to help them through this. More should do the same.
Yes, we love our sports. Yes, it provides distraction. But maybe distraction isn’t the highest priority right now. Maybe focusing on a national plan that leaves the most Americans alive should be.
Ask the athletes themselves who have lost parents, siblings, and even children to this insidious virus, just how important it is to give fans something to yell at on their TV sets. You’ll get a somber answer.
We all want to get back to normal. And one day, in the not too distant future, we will. Until then, however, sports must keep twisting the cube, hoping for a new color that changes everything.
Sadly, the next scheduled sporting event that could actually go on time is another draft, the NBA draft, on tap for June 25th.
Mark your calendars.
Mitch Albom is offering a new work of fiction,”Human Touch,” for free on the internet to help first responders fighting COVID-19. You can read a new chapter each week or listen to the audio version at humantouchstory.com. Albom is encouraging donations from those who can to the “Detroit Beats Covid 19!” project at saydetroit.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.