It was professional sports that convinced America of the need to shut down and social distance. And it may be sports that will show us the way back — even if by demonstrating the wrong way to do it.
As the president continued to dismiss the threat of coronavirus in March, it was the NBA’s abrupt shutdown that got everyone’s attention, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Within a matter of days, the NHL and Major League Baseball had ceased operations as well, leading many businesses to follow suit and governors all over the country to issue emergency orders.
Professional sports was hurting as much as any industry, and eager to resume play (without games, there’s no TV money, no merchandising, etc.) Baseball began negotiating with its players union to hold a short season. The NBA and NHL began work on plans to finish theirs and hold playoffs.
And here’s where things diverge — just as they have in states and regions.
Hockey and basketball opted for a “bubble” approach to resuming: All players and staff from the teams that would continue play would be brought to one or two sites, and hole up there, quarantined from outsiders. They’d be tested and retested before starting back, and tested daily throughout, the hope being that no one would break the quarantine and the virus would be held at bay. Both leagues began play this past weekend, so far without a single positive test. If there is one, though, it could shut everything down, as they’re all sharing space in a few hotels.
Baseball, with more teams and games to consider, gave up on the bubble approach, after initially planning to play all games in Arizona spring-training sites. Instead, the league slated a 60-game schedule in which the teams are on the honor system to quarantine and take appropriate measures. It reduced travel by arranging series geographically as much as possible, but otherwise, teams are traveling as they normally would.
That plan, it turns out, was doomed from the start. Within days of opening the season July 23, several Florida Marlins players managed to become infected, having broken quarantine during their first trip, to Atlanta; but that was just the start of what has become a terribly mismanaged episode. After the players tested positive, instead of removing them and postponing play, the team’s management let the players vote on whether to play against Philadelphia — without telling the Phillies. It’s worth mentioning that the players are getting paid on a prorated basis this season, essentially per game, so they had every incentive to opt to play.
Thus far, 18 players and two coaches on the Marlins have tested positive, and their games have been on hold for a week. Two Phillies staffers tested positive and that team was also sidelined for testing for a time. This past Friday, it was announced two St. Louis players and several team staff tested positive. Several Cardinals’ games with Milwaukee were postponed.
At this point, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has handled the entire pandemic poorly, began blaming the players. He said Saturday the season could be endangered if players don’t “take the virus more seriously.” To which we’d say: Same to you, fella. Baseball’s owners and players spent the spring negotiating money instead of devising a workable plan for resuming play.
One player who no doubt is taking it very seriously is Red Sox ace Eduardo Rodriguez, who tested positive for COVID-19 in July before the season began. He “recovered,” except that the 23-year-old professional athlete now has a heart issue that’s sidelined him for at least the rest of this year. So much for the idea this is only dangerous for the elderly.
At this point it seems the sport whose return we were lauding two weeks ago is on the brink of disaster.
Meanwhile, football is getting ready to start practices. The NFL, like baseball, plans to let teams take charge of their own destinies, and even plans, at this point, to allow some fans to attend games. Already, a number of players have opted to skip the season. Management ought to be paying close attention to the missteps baseball’s enduring, because a bubble approach would require a lot more stadiums than hockey and basketball need for their limited playoff runs. And things could get worse in the nation overall before the NFL season starts.
Colleges ought not to be even entertaining playing football games this season. We’ve no doubt the players would want to play, but in any case, they’re not making the decisions; college presidents, conferences and the NCAA — all of whom benefit greatly financially from the games but aren’t putting themselves at risk — are the decision makers. That seems a poor recipe for a thoughtful outcome.
We were excited to get sports back, as they provide a welcome distraction from hard times. But not at any cost. If the games can’t be conducted safely, they ought to be shut down.