Column: Unless experts are wrong, it’ll be later than sooner for return of sports
On this much we can agree: We want our lives back.
We want to high-five friends, not stand six feet away from them. We want to hug family members, not wave to them on a computer screen while hoping they ignore the dusty bookshelves in the background (but notice the book titles).
We want to shop at grocery stores that are stocked with toilet paper and disinfectant wipes. We want to sit in restaurants and enjoy a meal, not cautiously lift a takeout bag placed on a table by a gloved and masked server. We want our old routines and we want masks to be saved for Halloween.
And we want sports back. We want to be entertained. Inspired. Empowered. Sports aren’t trivial: They embody our best and worst qualities. They teach us about teamwork and humility and the wonder of being part of something bigger than we can be alone.
President Trump spoke with major sports league commissioners Saturday to thank them for supporting Americans during the coronavirus outbreak.
But we don’t want sports back if going to a game means cramming in beside thousands of other fans and risking your health — or the health of those around you — by carrying the coronavirus infection home. No matter how eager we are to sit in a baseball stadium on a warm spring night and pay outrageous prices for a beer or a hot dog, sports will have to wait until the pandemic is beaten down.
How long does that mean? That’s one of many unknowns we face, and after weeks of increasing restrictions and nearly a month without professional sports, there’s less certainty and more restlessness. That might be why it touched a nerve when ESPN — citing unnamed sources — said President Trump had spoken to the commissioners and presidents of major sports leagues Saturday and told them he believed the NFL season would start on time and stadiums could be open to fans in August or September. We wanted so badly for it to be true.
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The truth, in this case, is multi-layered. Trump declined to give a specific date but left no doubt he wants the business of sports to resume. “Absolutely I want fans back in the arenas. Whenever we’re ready. As soon as we can, obviously,” he said during his daily news briefing. “And the fans want to be back too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go to golf courses and breathe clean, beautiful fresh air.
“I can’t tell you a date but I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later. But we’re not going to have to have separation for the rest of our times on the planet. We need it for this period of time, but eventually people are going to be able to occupy those seats in arenas next to each other, as they have for all of my life and your life.”
League executives, he said, also are eager to return. “They want to get back. They’ve got to get back. They can’t do this,” Trump said. “Their sports weren’t designed for it. The whole concept of our nation wasn’t designed for it. We’re going to have to get back. We want to get back soon. Very soon.”
As much as we wish it were true, that day seems a long way off. Dr. Allen Sills, chief medical officer of the NFL, said in a story posted last week on nfl.com that it’s too early to plan resuming any sport. “As long as we’re still in a place where when a single individual tests positive for the virus that you have to quarantine every single person who was in contact with them in any shape, form or fashion, then I don’t think you can begin to think about reopening a team sport,” Sills said. “Because we’re going to have positive cases for a very long time.”
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He also said widespread testing would have to be available before the NFL could contemplate reopening, and that it’s too early to say how the league would deal with large groups of fans until a vaccine is widely available.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, asked about ESPN’s report that the NFL would start in the fall, cast doubt. “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state,” he said, pointing to the return of COVID-19 in Asia after it was believed the worst was over. “We have to be careful not to overpromise. I’m not here to second-guess anybody, but I am here to say this: Our decision on that basis, at least here in the state of California, will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts, will be determined by the capacity to meet this moment, bend the curve and have the appropriate community surveillance and testing to confidently determine whether or not that’s appropriate. ... That’s not something I anticipate happening in the next few months.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a touchstone of calm credibility at Trump’s briefings, called social distancing “our most important tool” in ending the COVID-19 outbreak. “We’ll be talking about vaccines and drugs and [things] like that, that will mitigate later, but this is what we really have to do,” he said. “As sobering and as difficult as this is, what we are doing is making a difference, so we really need to continue to do that.” Crowds of 60,000 at NFL games — or smaller crowds in soccer stadiums or enclosed arenas — don’t mesh with social distancing.
The NBA became the first winter sports league to put its season on hold, suspending play after Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. About a dozen other players are known to have since tested positive. The NBA could extend its season through the summer and reportedly has considered staging games without fans. But even in empty arenas there are risks for players, trainers, officials, equipment managers and the dozens of people who make games possible in every league if play resumes too soon. One positive test after one league resumes means every league will have to shut down again.
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Seven NHL players and two broadcasters are known to have tested positive and the league extended its self-isolation period for players and staff until April 15. The NHL remains intent on finishing the season in some form and awarding the Stanley Cup; teams have been asked to check arena availability through August.
Dr. Alan Drummond of the Canadian Association of Emergency Room Physicians was blunt when asked by TSN.ca about the resumption of play in the NHL and other leagues. “Nobody gives [an expletive] right now. Better to turn hockey rinks into makeshift hospitals or morgues,” he said. “I love sports as much as anyone but this is really not the time.”
July or August might not be the right time, either, unless the virus outbreak can be suppressed. We might not be “designed” to sit and wait but that’s the only smart course until the safety of fans, players and officials can be assured, even if it’s later than sooner.
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