Thanks to the arrival of the COVID-19 virus, for many people right now it feels like up is down, and down is up. The virus has also introduced new terms like, social distancing and contact tracing into our vocabularies. As part of its destructive path into everyday life COVID-19 has caused the world of sports to grind to a halt as player and fan safety was given the proper level of respect.
The COVID-19 outbreak tested leagues in a way that many sports had never experienced. Social distancing requirements, as well as limits on crowd size, led to the cancellations of the XFL, NBA, NHL and almost all other sports leagues. On April 10, 2020 the XFL announced it had suspended operations indefinitely and laid off all league employees due in part to financial losses as a result of COVID-19.
The Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo were delayed by at least a year. All NCAA spring sports tournaments, including the Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments were cancelled. Major League Baseball ended Spring Training early, and delayed the start of the season. The leagues that continued to hold competitions did so without fans in attendance as they tried to balance social responsibility with the public’s appetite for live sports.
Before going any further, it is important to note that shutting down mass gatherings, like sporting events, was the right call.
One need only look at the amount of cases that spread out from a convention in Boston to know how quickly the virus can spread to know that mass gatherings are simply not prudent at this juncture. Even with social distancing, the number of cases, and the number of fatalities continue to rise. Were sports allowed to continue in full stadiums and arenas, there is little doubt that the case and death count would be much higher.
It should also be said that the inconvenience of not having live sports to watch is trivial compared to the real effects of COVID-19 that many people are facing across the world through losses of jobs and in extreme cases losses of loved ones.
Although the major sporting leagues have been shutdown for nearly two months, there are rumblings building to resume sports, albeit in empty stadiums without fans. NASCAR, which kept fans entertained through simulated races, is set to resume racing in empty tracks on May 17, 2020. Five years after the first game in Major League Baseball history was played in Baltimore without fans, MLB is negotiating with the player’s union to try to gain approval to host a truncated 82 game season in empty ballparks starting in July.
All of these efforts to resume sports without fans show a desire for the governing bodies of the respected sports to explore any and all means for the show to go on. This effort to resume is driven in large part so the leagues can recoup some sort of financial payday.
While a return to live sports on television, even sports without fans, would be welcomed by many, one has to ask whether leagues risk diminishing the product by forcing reduced schedules on fans and trying to call it a full season. Should a World Series Champion that only played an 82-game regular season be considered as talented as teams of the past who prevailed over the course of a season that was twice as long?
Additionally, as part of any discussion on the resumption of live sports one must also ask whether players are being put at undue risk by being asked to travel from city to city, and potential virus hot spot to hot spot, just so the show can go on in some form or fashion.
To be clear, like most sports fans, I miss being able to unwind at the end of the day by watching a game on television. However, I am not sure that I miss live sports enough that I am willing to support putting my favorite athletes potentially at risk of catching, or spreading, a virus that currently has no cure just so they can bring me a few hours of entertainment.
Aside from needing to address player safety as part of any path to resumed competition, leagues must also consider that airing games without fans leagues may hasten the trend of people choosing to watch games from the comfort of home versus battling thousands of people to get to a seat so far from the field that they are basically watching the game on the big screen anyway. Sure, the made for TV sports are better with screaming fans, but there is something to be said for watching at home where the snacks and the bathrooms are both a lot easier to get to.
With NASCAR and MLB looking to get their seasons going, the eyes of the world of sports turn their focus to football. Even if one accepts the prospect of empty football stadiums, it is hard to fathom how players could be in the trenches on the gridiron and not risk exposure to COVID-19.
Exactly how does one huddle with six-feet of separation? Even a scenario where players are wearing masks does not seem feasible. It is hard to think that a wide receiver can run full speed down the sideline wearing a N-95 mask under his face mask. The only possible solution would be to equip all player helmets with a clear shield that covers their mouth and nose, but even that is a stretch.
College sports face their own hurdles for resuming in the fall. The NCAA has said that sports will not resume unless on campus classes have also resumed. The implication being that if the college is not deemed safe enough for students to be on, then the athletes should not be expected to have to play there.
There is too much money involved in college football to think that a work around of some sort will not be found to play games if the COVID-19 virus is still running rampant across the country come August. The topic of College Bowl Games and the College Football Playoffs is another issue that is bound to get a lot of attention in the coming months based on the millions of dollars at stake.
It is entirely possible that the sports landscape will never return to the levels that it was at before the world of sports was shut down by COVID-19. By adopting an attitude that everyone is in this together, those most impacted by the global timeout in sport can better weather the storm. It is crucial to keep in mind that the current situation is also only temporary.
Perhaps James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann in the movie Field of Dreams said it best when he said “People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
Yes, baseball and other sports will resume at some point, and people will indeed come. How many people are allowed to come over the next few years based on social distancing remains to be seen.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some masked competitive cornhole to watch on the Ocho followed by some lawnmower racing.
Copyright 2020 R. Anderson