Our expectations for the return of live sports have been in a state of gradual downward adjustment. They’ve gone from grandiose hopes of a full return after a short break, to the current cabin-fever mode of, “We’ll take anything!”
But this virus is so stubborn, and so insidious, and so maddeningly unknowable, that I think all these hopeful stories of re-launch strategies should come with an asterisk. Just like the hypothetical statistics from truncated seasons that are the best-case-scenarios after commissioners decide what to do next.
I’m not here to be a killjoy. I want games just as much as everyone else, with or without fans in the stands (but unfortunately I can’t see the former happening for quite awhile, which puts a major damper on college football starting on time).
I’ll just attempt to be a mild voice of reason to remind people that there’s a huge step from MLB offering a return-to-play proposal to its union within a week, as ESPN and others have reported, to, well, an actual return to play.
But it’s not just the athletes that have to be factored in — it’s the huge infrastructure that supports the staging of pro sports. The Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer league, estimated that about 240 people are needed to stage a game even with an empty stadium – players, staff, officials, and broadcast personnel. I’d imagine it’s similar for American sports, and that’s a lot of people to worry about contracting, or spreading, the virus.
When it comes to baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer and football, in particular, the logistics and safety concerns are vast and complex. It’s one thing to outline a plan, and another to implement it at a time when new cases of COVID-19, and the resulting death toll, are still holding steady, with projections for a sharp rise in June. The New York Times last week cited an internal Trump administration report that expects about 200,000 daily cases, and 3,000 daily deaths, by June.
Through Friday, there have been 1,248,040 cases in the U.S., and 75,477 deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a staggering, and sobering, number.
Just today I see a story headlined, “Is the coronavirus mutating and becoming more contagious?” I hear the recent words of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s leading expert on infectious diseases, to the New York Times echoing in my head:
“Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything. If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for the season.’”
In that interview, Fauci said the necessary requirements for leagues to re-open are quick and accurate testing for all essential players and staff. That is one of the big reasons that pro baseball has re-launched in South Korea — but it doesn’t yet seem to be a feasible reality here. Nor has the U.S. had anywhere near as much success as South Korea in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
Fauci did say in April that sports could return in summer — without fans — if leagues took precautions to minimize the amount of exposure to players and officials. And he subsequently told the New York Times, on April 28, that quarantining players in some form would still be required when sports return. Players like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw have already balked at this notion.
The athletes themselves, who will be on the front lines, need to be heard from in far more detail, and their apprehensions assuaged. Concerns about older and more vulnerable coaches and managers need to be addressed. It must be decided what would happen if sports do return and a player tests positive. In South Korea, the protocol in such an instance will be to instantly pause the season for at least three weeks. Even if our sports indeed came back, that doesn’t mean there won’t be stops and starts as unforeseen circumstances and possible coronavirus outbreaks occurred.
In other words, it’s worth having an open, honest national debate about whether the inherent risks of opening sports back up supersede the undeniable economic and psychological benefits of doing so. One more oft-recited quote from Fauci seems especially pertinent: “The virus decides how quickly you’re going to return to normal.”
Let’s all hope for a scenario that allows teams and players to safely roll out very soon, and give us the games and matches we long for. But let’s also be realistic about how problematic that remains.