Sports Fan, the Word of the Day is avarice. That seems to cover it well at least for fans, network executives, owners, and players. Some owners and some players anyway, as how professional sports purveyors are planning to address opening of their sport in our Covid-soaked world varies dramatically by sport. If, like me, you are desperately greedy to watch some games besides a 13-2 baseball donnybrook from 2015 or the Doritos Cornhole Championships, then let me give you a rundown of plans for some of the national sports leagues. How those leagues differ in approach reveals a lot about their industry.
Let’s also agree that we don’t want anyone playing who might risk getting Covid-19. I’m not in the camp that thinks we can achieve herd immunity by letting the disease burns its way through or that only weenies wear masks. Any of these players and leagues could decide as they move forward–as they did on March 12th–that it’s too dangerous to risk the health of players, coaches, and surrounding support workers. We don’t yet know if any sport is safe enough. What is true is that this disease won’t discriminate between a linebacker and a knuckleball set-up pitcher.
Football: Sweatin’, Bleedin’ and Spittin’
The noise coming out of the NFL and its surrounding retinue has been a little baffling. On the one hand, they held their draft, rookie camp, and voluntary workouts as scheduled, although remotely and virtually. Teams are gearing up for practice camp in late July, even though the only agreement is that they will play without fans–but there’s been no public conversation about where or how.
Meanwhile, coaches and players are scratching their heads. John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, said that it was simply “impossible” to follow the NFL’s recently-issued Covid-19 guidelines. Impossible to imagine that a huddle could occur with players six feet apart; impossible to envision how players could shower safely; impossible for them to lift weights “one at a time all day.” Impossible, it may be, though it wasn’t clear whether Harbaugh expected the league to brush the guidelines aside or was trying to acknowledge that the very notion of a full-contact sport being played with social distancing is ridiculous.
As one player summarized it, “everyone wants to play, but no one has any answers”:
The disease is airborne, so it can come from anywhere, and you have to keep people away from each other, but the game is literally sweating, bleeding, spitting on each other all the time.D.R. Reader, nose tackle for the Bengals
I could ask a few dumb questions. Is it impossible to envision shower and weight facilities in a multi-billion dollar industry big enough that players could use without being closer than ten feet apart? If coaches receive plays via headset, why can’t earpiece technology be given to players? And why are players spitting on each other?
The NFL seems to be taking the approach toward playing that Texas is taking towards COVID in general. Let’s wave some ground rules around, acknowledge that there might be some issues, then just start playing.
Why might the NFL put such blinders on? The money involved is eye-popping. This is a recap of the big three of popular U.S. sports, salaries and revenues. The NFL earns $13 billion…BBBBBB…billion in its 16-game season. It does have a lot of mouths to feed, as the average team has to cover a full 53-player roster (plus apparently 12 more in practice camp). This isn’t your five-person flag football on Thanksgiving. With 53 people per team, that’s a lot of money to work out pesky details like separate showers.
Having to field 53 people gets at the core of the problem. With a disease that has a geometric infection vector, 50+ seems like a whole lot of too many people to be sharing weights. Not to mention the sweating and bleeding. The NFL has a long history of looking the other way on concussion and head injuries. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that they’re brushing worries about Covid safety protocols aside.
Last week, it was revealed that several members of the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans had tested positive for Covid-19. This past Monday, league commissioner Roger Goodell responded by saying players were bound to test positive and the issue was whether they could be quickly treated and prevented from impacting other personnel. In a sport where players are expected to get back in the huddle unless they have a bone sticking out, it’s not surprising that they are moving full steam ahead. The infrastructure of sports media has also moved on to discussing the intimate logistics of the 12-person practice squad. No one’s really probing How this could really work, let alone Whether it should.
Rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, Sign this Waiver
If the NFL seems to be sticking its head in the sand about playing football in a pandemic, college football is taking it even further. And it’s also not surprising, given the environment. The big news this week in college football was the hooha about Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy being pictured in a T-shirt supporting the One America News network. Much was made of star running back Chuba Hubbard’s complaint on its lack of sensitivity and Gundy’s apology. Not much said about whether college football should continue in a pandemic.
Many colleges have already declared that fall classes will use online-only instruction and end in-person activities before the Thanksgiving break. But the football teams still have practices planned for late July and games scheduled for September. A few games were cancelled this week, as the NY Times underscored “the financial vulnerability of neutral-site games during the pandemic, especially ones that are not underwritten by ESPN and thus depend more on live fans attending.” The Times makes it clear that these games are as divorced from the student and college experience as can be. Games aren’t cancelled because of concern about athletes getting sick but because playing those particular games without fans won’t bring in any of that $ 4 billion that those universities wanted.
Ohio State, one of the college powerhouses, highlighted the approach that universities are taken with their “student-athletes.” Players are required to sign “The Buckeye Pledge.” It’s not an agreement to be an upstanding college citizen; it’s a liability waiver for athletes not to sue if they test positive for Covid-19. Similar to how some in the government are treating the pandemic, the universities are pretending the disease is no problem, training camp is scheduled, let’s start in the weight room, but first sign this waiver that absolves us of risk in case you come down with this disease that doesn’t exist.
Last week, the University of Houston suspended voluntary workouts after six players tested positive for the virus. Athletes at Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Iowa State, Marshall and Oklahoma State have also tested positive. Practice hasn’t even started in earnest yet.
The NBA’s 113-page Plan
In contrast to the “play at your own risk” attitude on the gridiron, the basketball establishment is taking a different tack. Basketball was already well under way–nearly completed its season–when Covid-19 shut it down rather dramatically right before games were about to be played. Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive in March for Covid-19 and the NBA ended the season that night.
The NBA’s response was swift and all-encompassing, despite the money involved. They weren’t going to risk anybody, period. But the season was a few games from being over, and basketball teams only field 15 players. They’ve worked since, somewhat publicly, on a plan to get in the end of season and playoffs.
Basketball’s arrangement is to bring the players, coaches, and family members to a Disney campus in Florida. This giant social bubble would be intact from mid-July until the end of September, when the finals are completed. Of course, once teams are eliminated, they’ll be able to leave campus, but, until then, social isolation is mandated. Also, the eight teams already out of contention because of their poor win-loss record can stay home, too.
The NBA has laid out the rules in a 113-page document, a rather stunning contrast to the looser “you might want to wear a mask unless you’re tackling” directives in the NFL and NCAA. While the media is teasing basketball a little over how much detail there is–no sharing snorkel equipment–at least it’s a plan. The NBA is taking Covid-19 seriously, which seems to give it the best chance of actually finishing out the season.
Players also can opt out of playing, if they don’t want to commit to segregating their families or are still concerned about Covid-19 within the bubble. They have to tell their teams by June 24, and there’s also a complex process for allowing free agents and open players to be picked up for this short-term season. That’s created something for fans to speculate about–at last!
In fact, the only thing I don’t like about this plan is that my three-time champion Warriors team… well, let’s just say between injury and trades, they were so far out of contention that they’d already shut the lights off before the pandemic started. They aren’t invited to Disney-NBA. Or, they’re safe from contracting Covid-19 through playing basketball this year, whichever you way you want to think about it.
Sports With a Side of Social Justice
In case your locality is also one that isn’t going to be represented in the NBA’s experiment, you might have one other option to enjoy basketball: the WNBA is also returning.
Like the NBA, the WNBA plans to start in late July, play a shortened season, and finish with playoffs. They also will play within a campus in Florida, though not at the swanky Disney resort but over in Bradenton. While they haven’t published the Covid-19 rules yet, the big topic in their collective bargaining agreement was how to allow players to continue protesting racial injustice while they started practice. In fact, they’ve built it into their plans at the outset. Commisioner Cathy Engelbert told the Times:
The players are launching a bold social justice platform, and one of the positives of being all together is their ability to use that time as a call to action around driving change. This country definitely needs that.
It’s not that the WNBA is the only sports league addressing the call for social activism and the Black Lives Matter movement. They’re just the only one incorporating it into their plans to start playing during this pandemic.
Of course, they get paid peanuts compared with the NBA, so money wouldn’t loom so large. I won’t quibble with someone who says the WNBA isn’t as interesting to watch as the NBA, but based on revenue and salaries, I wonder if it’s a hundred times less interesting? The WNBA, by getting some games in front of a sports-starved public, may sense an opportunity.
Breanna Stewart, the MVP from the Seattle Storm who sat out 2019 with injury, is slated to be back. Sabrina Ionescu, the record-breaking star from Oregon, will debut with the New York Liberty. West Coast represent! There might be some hoops teams for me to root for after all.
Baseball Not Been Berry Berry Good to ME
Late-breaking news: there might be a first pitch after all. I started this blog post yesterday because Major League Baseball and the baseball player’s union had broken off talks entirely, and it didn’t look promising. Management and the players had agreed in late March to a plan when spring training was stopped. The plan would have allowed players to receive pro-rated full salaries for however many games were played; if half the games could be played, half salary; if only 25%, then 25% salary.
However, as MLB started addressing out how to play with the disease, specifics that the NBA has detailed and the NFL has glossed over, the owners started grousing about playing with no fans. They wanted to renegotiate and have players earn only a percentage of that pro-rated salary. Play half the games, but earn 25% of the salary. Players said no, and MLB complained that they weren’t negotiating. They couldn’t even get to the part about who gets to use the showers.
Yesterday, though, MLB put forth a plan to play 60 games with pro-rated salaries; fewer games than players wanted, but at least with full pay. Maybe past the money part at last, they can work on the logistics. It won’t be easy. They can’t play at Disney–that’s occupied. Originally, they were discussing using facilities in Arizona, but with Covid-19 now filling up the hospitals that state, that seems off the table. Stories today are full of hope for baseball, laying out a full schedule that more or less overlaps with basketball and football. Yet without any safety guidelines, that seems premature.
Little League is starting–they’ve cancelled their planned World Series–but are resuming regular play, with masks, social distancing, no sharing of equipment. Maybe MLB can borrow the “Return to Play Guidelines” checklist on the Little League website, which emphasizes integration with Centers for Disease Control and local county health departments. Little League, at least, has got its act together and is ready to play ball!