Play ball! The COVID-19 sports conundrum

You can see the appeal for Trump to use sports to help restore normalcy as he heads for the November presidential election

Bruce DowbigginOn the list of important issues in this troubled time, American President Donald Trump conducting a conference call with the commissioners of 11 sports leagues isn’t high on the priority list.

But on Saturday, Trump convened a chat with the people leading these professional leagues – all of whom (except World Wrestling Entertainment, some horse racing and UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship) are shut down in the pandemic panic.

The president told the organizations that he was determined to get them back to work at finishing or starting seasons on hold.

The 11 organizations in question: the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), NASCAR auto racing, Major League Soccer (MLS), the Professional Golf Assocation (PGA) and LPGA, Breeders’ Cup horse racing, UFC and WWE.

Trump said he expects the NFL season to start on time in early September. And that the NBA, NHL and MLB should finish their incomplete seasons.

Said Trump after the call: “The whole concept of our nation wasn’t designed for it. We’re gonna have to get back. We want to get back soon.”

Well, great. I want a pony for Christmas, but that doesn’t mean I’m getting one.

And California Gov. Gavin Newsom (whose state its doing very well in the COVID-19 crisis) quickly reminded the president that he’ll be the one to decide when any games or competitions are staged in his state, which has 20 men’s and women’s teams in various pro sports leagues.

Still, there are hints that a break might emerge before the 30-day American April self-isolation order is over.

Already, ESPN has floated the idea that it might stage a H-O-R-S-E competition using NBA stars in isolation.

The NFL plans to conduct a scaled-down version of its annual draft in two weeks with social distancing observed.

The WWE went ahead with its annual WrestleMania event last weekend with no fans in attendance.

And UFC continues to stage cards with no fans in the stands.

That’s not much on which to hang your sports hat. But there’s reason to believe that building on this might be something more than another aspirational goal for Trump. While some of his health-care experts have stated that society can’t resume until the last person has died from COVID-19, it’s now conceded that such a standard is clearly impractical.

Trump needs a potent symbol to his nation that it’s open for business again.

The predicted U.S. morbidity numbers this week are indeed going to be bracing. But the return of sports to a culture that has exhausted its Netflix viewing options would be one of the most dramatic signs that it’s okay to enjoy a few of the old pleasures without fear of the virus.

How would that be done if the virus is still active in certain hot spots of the United States? Or if, like Newsom, state officials refuse to go along? Or if the notoriously liberal sports media stokes up public sentiment against the move?

You can see the challenges.

Plus, there’s the lingering image of juvenile NBA star Rudy Gobert-Bourgarel of the Utah Jazz mocking the bans on contact after his press conference following the last game before the suspension of play (he later tested positive for COVID-19 and now says he wished he had taken the virus more seriously).

But the advent of rapid testing kits for COVID-19 presents an opportunity to determine who might safely participate when sports resume.

The number of people under 60 years of age – that would represent 100 per cent of professional team sport athletes – who have died of the virus without underlying conditions is also statistically insignificant.

You can see many athletes who’ve lost all or part of their livelihood being amenable to returning under controlled conditions with only TV coverage.

Games could begin in the first weeks back without crowds. Safe ‘studio’ conditions could be produced that would allow athletes to have peace of mind about the virus being on everyone’s hands or clothing. Fans would not be tempted to break any curfews still in effect if they could stay home to watch games.

You can see the appeal for Trump – who once owned a United States Football League franchise starring Doug Flutie at quarterback and Herschel Walker at running back – in having sports help restore normalcy as he heads for the presidential election in November.

The death toll numbers this week will be a cautionary wedge used to hold back sports. But it’s important to remember that the mortality statistics lag the reality by up to 20 days. So they’re not a picture of the current status of the virus.

When numbers start to show the virus’s grip loosening – with warmer weather perhaps lessening its spread – it will be difficult to hold back the public demand to play ball.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

© Troy Media


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