The question over breakfast was blunt, but also involved way more nuance than sports commissioners and administrators – and players – seem willing to admit.
“Are they going to have sports this year?”
Great question. And over and above the various quests for championships that we await, this may be the most intriguing drama of all: In a global pandemic, in a country where the curve not only hasn’t been flattened but increasingly looks like a steep hill, can our professional and college sports entities pull it off? Can they make it to season’s end without more mass infections shutting things down?
More specifically, what constitutes acceptable risk? And at what point do precautions break down and acceptable risks become unacceptable?
Already, even before the NBA has welcomed teams into its bubble or baseball has begun its extended spring training, the signs aren’t promising either inside or outside of sports.
COVID-19 cases overall are spiking in a large number of localities – including Florida, where NBA and MLS teams will be sequestered in Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. And this one, where even California’s prolonged stay-at-home order and measured attempts to slow the spread of the virus haven’t prevented a new surge of cases.
The volume of positive tests being reported in various sports, often even before official workouts have begun, doesn’t prompt much confidence, either.
Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies has reportedly had a positive test, one of many in MLB and one of the few with a name attached. The Miami Heat’s Derek Jones Jr., the Sacramento Kings’ Buddy Hield, the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic all have had positive tests. Novak Djokovic and his wife, and three other players, tested positive after Djokovic’s ill-advised and ill-planned exhibition tennis tournament in his native Serbia, where Jokic reportedly also contracted the virus.
Want more? Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson withdrew from this week’s PGA Tour event in Cromwell, Conn., after Koepka’s caddie and one of Simpson’s family members tested positive. Kansas State, Houston and Boise State football have all shut down summer workouts because of outbreaks, while LSU and Clemson, among others, reported large numbers of positive tests among players returning for summer workouts.
And Avery Bradley of the Lakers has opted out of the season’s re-start over family medical concerns. How many other players will decline to play? And what happens, God forbid, if LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo tests positive and, at the very least, has to quarantine once play starts?
With all that’s at stake, primarily copious amounts of TV money, there will be every temptation to push the envelope as far as possible. But how far is too far? Is there a number or a percentage beyond which the NBA, or NHL or MLS or MLB or PGA or NCAA or whoever, can’t go? We don’t know.
“I think that’s literally the multimillion-dollar question going on right now,” said Dr. Rand McClain, a Santa Monica based physician who specializes in regenerative therapy and has some athletes as clients.
“It’s going to come down to, if you think about it, more finances than anything else. At what point does a season get ruined, so to speak, because the first-string linemen all got infected? And so this team over here decides, ‘OK, well, we’re gonna put in the second team and play the games anyway.’ This team over here says, ‘No, we’re gonna call the next two games, period, because some of our guys got infected so we’re doing a two-week lockdown.’
“I really think that’s the biggest unknown and one of the biggest factors left to be decided at this point, because it’s going to affect every level – high school, college and pro. … The money received – I hate to say it, but it is definitely a part of the decision-making process going on here. It’s not just about making fans happy. It’s about keeping the programs going.”
A full team pullout has already happened. The National Women’s Soccer League will be the first league to return with meaningful games Saturday, but the Orlando Pride pulled out of the league’s Challenge Cup tournament in Utah earlier this week after six players and four staffers tested positive. So what was supposed to be a nine-team event is now eight.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians talked a while back about having a third quarterback under quarantine just in case starter Tom Brady and probable backup Blaine Gabbert both get sick. It sounded semi-whimsical, but maybe the NFL’s practice squads will now become quarantine squads.
Most sports entities seem to have taken similar approaches to a return: Testing and screening to start, contact tracing as necessary throughout the process, and a first phase of training in small groups followed by full team workouts followed eventually by competition, with adherence to social distancing and mask use and other restrictions involving locker and training rooms, all the way down to such things as no high fives or, in baseball, no chewing and spitting sunflower seeds.
(Trust me, that will cause some angst.)
And, as McClain noted, what happens when football players are breathing on each other in the huddle, or at the line of scrimmage? In a contact sport – which, let’s face it, most of our popular sports are to one degree or another – social distancing normally gets you benched.
But in the return to play it may have been the very first step even before the balls were rolled out.
“Our phase one is a 14-day social isolation phase,” said Dr. Jeanne Doperak of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who assists Pitt’s athletic program and also the Pittsburgh Steelers, on a recent episode of the Shaping Opinion podcast. “My infectious disease colleagues tell me that the safest way to assure someone does not have the virus is to take them to a cabin in the woods, don’t let them leave for 14 days, and after 14 days if they don’t get sick you’re good.
“So we’re trying to create our own version of Cabin in the Woods. Now, does that come with some hiccups? Perhaps when you’re dealing with a bunch of college students, it does.”
Not just college students, either. The incentive is obvious: The fewer risks you take that might get you infected or infect others, the quicker things return to normal, including sports. But as we’ve seen over the last few months, through all age groups, lots of people aren’t accepting that premise.
“Is there any way to say that there’s 100 percent certainty? There’s not,” Doperak said. ” … We’re going to have to be somewhat accepting that there is some risk there, and do our very best to minimize the risk, but to understand that there is risk.”
And so the suspense mounts.
Can baseball make it through a 60-game schedule and all the way through to a World Series before the predicted second wave of the virus comes crashing through? Will the NFL and college football bull their way through and conduct full, partial or even interrupted seasons? (The NFL’s Aug. 6 Hall of Fame Game in Canton was scrubbed Thursday, and that might be an ominous sign.) Will we see the NBA crown a champion at all, much less one representing the city of Los Angeles?
The positive scenario is that the concept of acceptable risk, whatever that might be, will carry us through. The uglier alternative? We’ll be overwhelmed. Not only won’t we have champions with asterisks, we’ll have none at all.
“I’m an eternal optimist, but I think we’re going to pull it off,” McClain said. “If we can execute, then we can do it. If we don’t execute, if we get sloppy, I think we’re going to be sorry.”
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