Our sports return soon, but will they be as good and fun as usual?

The Braves' Truist Park.
The Braves' Truist Park.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

American sports leagues are trudging forward with plans to play games during a pandemic that's spiking in several states. Maybe they won't finish them. But having numbers — amount of games, calendar dates, roster sizes — alleviated some of the exhausting uncertainty about whether sports will happen this year.

Lots of people want as many games as possible, including those who play them, but no one seems to be talking about quality. Will the games be good under the circumstances? Will they be as much fun with novel coronavirus in the background at all times, and in the foreground when participants inevitably are infected by COVID-19?

Whether the games will be good depends largely on players being ready. Elite athletes can adapt to changes. But it’s still the case that players in MLB, NBA and MLS had their normal routines suddenly interrupted.

NBA and MLB players will have three-week camps. That should be enough time for basketball players to get in game shape. But baseball’s starting pitchers will be limited to begin the season. Ballplayers won’t have the benefit of playing exhibition games before the ones that count.

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College football and the NFL still are planning to hold training camps as normal. That seems wildly optimistic under the circumstances. And, at some point, football players will have to come in close contact with one another on the field.

Truncated training camps wouldn’t be ideal. Players are already behind in practice time. COVID-19 wiped out most spring sessions for college football. NFL teams didn’t have offseason camps. Some NFL players have gathered on their own to practice in small groups, but that’s not the same as full-squad sessions.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan makes the case that working with teammates away from the full team can be beneficial.

"Sometimes it almost even better when you remove coaches from it," Ryan said during an episode of Chris Long's "Green Light" podcast. "Not to say our (coaches) don't do a great job. But you get to spend time explaining things from my perspective and why I need certain guys in certain spots."

I doubt many coaches would agree with Ryan’s assessment. Some of that is because coaches crave control and can take preparation past the point of diminishing returns. But if those coaches who attribute sloppy football early in the season to limited practice time with less contact are right, then game play this year will be even more haphazard.

Once the games begin, players will have to get used to no fans in the stands. The NBA and MLS are playing in a “bubble” in Orlando. MLB will start with no spectators in home stadiums, though some franchise owners say they plan on hosting fans eventually. Yes, that comes after they claimed for weeks that they needed players to sacrifice salary because there will be less revenue with no fans at games.

I’ve watched a lot of fan-less matches in the top German and English soccer leagues. The constant, coordinated chants of fans are a major part of the character of those matches. The broadcasts have done a surprisingly good job of piping in cheers that match the action. You still notice there are no fans, but the background noise helps.

But the players seem more muted in their emotions, including celebrations. That makes me wonder if some of the fun also will be missing with relatively quiet arenas in basketball, baseball and football. And how might that impact the quality of play?

"The lack of fans could affect the motivation, effort, and intensity of players," Natalie Durand-Bush, president of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology, wrote in an email. "Many athletes use the energy of crowds to regulate their intensity/arousal. Yet, athletes usually use a variety of strategies to effectively manage their energy and attention and should be able to mitigate the effects of playing in empty arenas."

Players won't be able to escape from what's happening outside of arenas. We've already seen multiple positive COVID-19 tests for those reporting for duty or already working, including two Atlanta United players.  Positive tests now are manageable compared to what they'll mean during the season.

MLS and the NBA have protocols for what happens if players inside the bubbles are infected. Baseball announced it will have an injured list specifically for the coronavirus. It’s likely to be used regularly with MLB players going back and forth to ballparks and traveling for road games.

COVID-19 adds a new element to the injuries that always are a topic in sports. The time necessary for isolation and recovery will be weeks. For baseball and basketball, that means infected players could be out for all or most of the remaining season. Campaigns of player attrition don’t sound fun.

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The professional athletes who decide to play will do so under safety protocols that were negotiated by their union representatives. They presumably know about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19, including lung damage. Players with underlying conditions can opt out. Those who end up getting sick with relatively mild symptoms can say they took the risks and got unlucky.

The perils could be more serious for older coaches and staff members. Astros manager Dusty Baker, 71, is forthcoming about his concerns.

“I’m a bit nervous,” Baker told the Associated Press. “I’ve seen the reports in Houston how COVID’s going up so I’m going to have to really be careful. ... I’ve read all the reports on what to do and how to stay good. So, in my mind and in my heart, I’m in good shape and I’m ready to go.”

That’s become the general spirit for sports in the COVID-19 era. There are risks and worries, but sports are ready to go. There will be games. We’ll see if they’ll be good and fun under the circumstances.

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