CAUTIOUS optimism is rarely a bad thing. We never would have seen medical breakthroughs or the internet if people hadn’t dreamed big. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
It’s a similar situation with sports these days. After two months of coronavirus quarantine, we’re so starved for fresh competition that a four-man celebrity exhibition golf match kept nearly six million people glued to their TVs on a pleasant holiday weekend afternoon.
And admit it: even if you’re not a fan of Tom Brady, you had to feel good that he redeemed himself (albeit in a losing effort). After looking like the rest of us with some horrible early swings, Brady holed a fairway shot from 100 yards on No. 7. (Still, he’s now officially 0–1 without Bill Belichick.)
NASCAR has returned and will run its fourth Cup race in 11 days on Wednesday evening. So far, so good. They’re playing professional baseball without fans in South Korea and Taiwan, with Japan set to restart its season in two weeks.
Closer to home, nearly every professional league and the quasi-professionals who play big-time college sports are making plans to hold games sooner rather than later.
Major League Baseball owners have sent a proposal to the players union detailing criteria for starting a shortened season on or around July 4. The NFL has blithely announced its 2020 schedule—one that’s likely to be delayed or shortened, barring a miraculous coronavirus disappearance.
NBA and NHL players now can work out in small groups, pending local regulations, in hopes of resuming their suspended seasons or advancing directly to playoffs in centralized locations.
And the NCAA voted to allow Division I college athletes back on campus starting June 1, with the hope of conducting a football season that helps pay for the rest of each institution’s athletic programs. Otherwise, we’ll see more schools cut entire teams, as East Carolina did last week.
Even the Virginia High School League has announced vague plans to conduct a fall sports season.
They should all be applauded. We need sports, just as we need jobs. (They’re not mutually exclusive.) And we desperately need something new to watch.
But let’s proceed carefully.
The path ahead to sports will likely be as bumpy as the path to a fully reopened economy, with a real chance that the whole house of cards tumbles. Many governors are breathlessly waiting to see if coronavirus cases spike after their states reopened last week; similarly, commissioners know a second wave could squelch their leagues’ best-laid plans.
Each sport’s resumption strategy rests on isolation and frequent testing of athletes, coaches, officials and support personnel. One positive test could quickly spread into several and cancel a season outright. (Remember, Rudy Gobert’s infection essentially put the entire world’s sports league on hold two months ago.)
There are other considerations as well. As discussed earlier, baseball’s resumption game plan already has drawn flak from players like Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell, who has sworn he won’t take a pay cut to pitch during a pandemic. He’s not alone in his opinion, although many of his peers haven’t been so outspoken. Other athletes are concerned about being quarantined away for their young families for an extended stretch.
There are literally billions of reasons (most of them green) for sports to return. But even without fans in the stands, everything has to go nearly perfectly for the games to resume without further interruption during this calendar year. One slipup can short-circuit everything.
So as we reach the unofficial start of summer, let’s all think positive. But it wouldn’t hurt to think like fans of the Cleveland Browns: Don’t be shocked if things don’t work out.