Three weeks ago — seems more like three years, I know — we were wondering who might win the conference basketball tournaments. Three weeks ago, all systems were go for Atlanta’s Final Four. By supper time Wednesday, March 11, the NCAA announced it would stage March Madness sans fans. By 10 p.m. Eastern time, the NBA had suspended its season after Rudy Gobert’s positive test. By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, every conference tournament had been canceled, and so had the Big Dance.
That was the beginning of our new normal — working from home, keeping a social distance, trying not to freak out over every scary news alert on our phone. That’s how fast all of our lives have changed. We used to get excited if we scored prime tickets for a big game; today we celebrate the purchase of off-brand toilet paper.
About here, I’d love to say, “Yes, but there’s a silver lining.” I’d love to say it, but I’m not sure one exists. What passes for good news is just a lesser shade of bad. I wish I could say, “Soon this will all be behind us and we’ll be going to ballgames again.” The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if we’ll be seeing anybody play anything for a long, long time.
It’s believed the NBA is considering resuming its season in June with the plan to stage some games and perhaps the playoffs behind closed doors. It’s thought that such a postseason could run until August. MLB probably won’t be ready until almost July, and reports hold that the World Series could end around Thanksgiving. MLB, however, would have a hard time playing so many games without fans: Baseball players are scheduled to earn $5 billion this season, and not banking anything from ticket sales and concessions and parking would leave many if not most clubs in a financial lurch.
But then we ask the next question, which is the only question that should matter: If COVID-19 is still with us, meaning there’s no vaccine, do we stop everything we’ve been doing the past two weeks — and are now scheduled to do for the next full month — and say, “Come back in, folks; the water’s fine?” Do we cram people into stadiums where the seats aren’t six feet apart? Do we ask players to gather in groups and play games against other groups, which would go on to play still other groups? Do we put them on buses and planes and bunk them in hotels? Would professional athletes, who have unions of varying power, agree to such a thing?
And what of amateurs? On March 12, the NCAA canceled all forms of competition through its winter AND summer seasons. Exactly three months ahead of time, the College World Series in Omaha was scrubbed. The college sports calendar is barren through July. We’ve all kind of assumed that college football, which doesn’t play games until Labor Day, would be semi-good to go, but can we assume anything at this fraught moment?
As we speak, almost every college is closed. Classes have gone online. Graduation ceremonies have been canceled. Let’s say schools decide to remain shuttered through August. Would players be allowed to return in July to practice? (Answer: surely not.) Would players be asked to show up the week before Labor Day and then play immediately? (Answer: same again.) Would schools be willing to open stadium gates to teeming throngs on autumnal Saturdays If no cure for COVID-19 has been found?
What we’re waging now is a holding action. This flattening of the curve is intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Alas, curve-flattening isn’t a cure. The hope is that the number of new cases begins to decline. (A snippet of good news: With social distancing, it usually does.) A decline, however, is not an eradication.
We tend to look to Asia as evidence that the coronavirus can be brought under something approximating control. But check the state of Asian sports. From The Wall Street Journal: “South Korea’s basketball league was suspended on Feb. 29 and canceled last week, while Japan played a weekend of basketball games without spectators before deciding to cancel. The Chinese Basketball Association went dark in January and still hasn’t returned.”
(Also: The Japanese baseball season has been delayed.)
The two biggest global sporting events scheduled for summer/fall — the Tokyo Olympics and soccer’s Euro 2020 — have been postponed until 2021. None of our major professional sports has any clear notion as to when suspended seasons might be resumed, or how they’ll look if they do. As LeBron James said last week on the Road Trippin’ Podcast: “So what happens when a guy who is tested positive for corona and you're out there on the floor with him and it's a loose ball?”
At the same time, James didn’t seem to support an empty-arena NBA: “What is the word ‘sport’ without ‘fan’? There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy.”
Before anything in this country can move forward, we must have a handle on COVID-19. We’re trying, but we’re not yet there. We mightn’t be for months. In the grand scheme of life as we now know it, sports are a trifle — a non-essential, to invoke the argot. I doubt we’ll see the non-essential NBA again this year. I’m unsure if there’s a way for MLB to go forward.
As for autumn sports … well, this was ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN Radio last week: “I'll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football … Just because from what I understand, people that I listen to, you're 12 to 18 months from a vaccine. I don't know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball.”
I understand this isn’t what anybody wants to hear. It’s not what I want to write. (To reiterate: I’m a sportswriter.) But maybe it’s what we need to hear. As much as we want to know how soon our games will be returning, the correct answer might be, “Not soon at all.” And now, having darkened everyone’s day, I’m off to think happier thoughts. Assuming I can locate one.
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