It’s about to get real.
Real exciting. Real scary. Real weird. Real fast.
This week into next, sports resumes in full – playtime in a pandemic. It might be a wonderful, needed boost to the American spirit. It might be closer to insanity.
Sports is high on a 10-meter board, blindfolded, about to dive in. It might be water below. It might be concrete. The massive endeavor could prove a huge success, or collapse under the weight of enough athletes testing positive for COVID-19 to call the whole thing off.
The only certainty is that nothing is certain.
Major League Soccer has been at it for a while in the Orlando bubble; expansion Inter Miami played Monday, losing its third consecutive match since returning.
Now all of the other major U.S. team sports step into the great unknown as well – including the NFL and college football, whose training camps are set to begin amid trepidation and uncertainty.
Dolphins rookies are to report to training camp Thursday (two days later than first scheduled), with full camp starting July 28. The Hurricanes (at least three of whom have tested positive for the virus) are scheduled to open camp August 7. Major concerns hover, though, as football is the sport with by far the largest roster of players and coaches. And the one sport that, in an age of social distancing, mandates unavoidable physical contact on every play.
You saw NFL players’ concerns arise in a coordinated tweetstorm Sunday, one coordinated by new Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones in a recent players conference call.
Stars including Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Texans pass rusher J.J. Watt and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted their concerns. The theme: Training camps are opening despite no agreement between the NFL and NFLPA on health and safety protocols.
Will there be daily testing? How will positive tests be handled? What about an opt-out clause for players who are at higher risk or have family members who are?
Can players be fined for not showing up up even though protocols have not been agreed upon?
There are no answers. Understandably, players want answers.
Wilson tweeted: “I am concerned. My wife is pregnant. NFL training camp is about to start. And there’s still no clear plan on player health and family safety. We want to play football but we also want to protect our loved ones.”
Another complaint: That the NFL is ignoring the advice of its own medical committee, which recommended players have a 21-day training camp acclimation period. Instead the league is making room for two preseason games, while the NFLPA wants none.
The NFL as ignored the safety recommendations from the experts that THEY hired,” tweeted 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman.
Concerns pulse just as much around college football – and whether there will be a season.
The NCAA Sport Science Institute ominously calls football a “high contact risk sport.” One of its recommendations for the “resocialization of collegiate sports” is social distancing during competition. Wait a minute. In football? Good luck with that one.
The institute’s executive summary on the return of football begins with this simple declarative: “Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread of COVID-19 is common in young adults.
College football players = young adults.
The idea of college football happening this fall, even with reduced conference-only schedules, even without fans, is far from certain at the moment.
As NCAA president Mark Emmert said last week, “Sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”
Meanwhile it’s opening week for MLB, although, in 2020, “Play ball!” is less a declarative than a question. Play ball? Really? In a pandemic that is not nearly contained and worsening in some hotspots including South Florida? And travel from city to city to do it?
Opening Day on a 60-game regular season is Thursday, with the Marlins launching Friday in Philadelphia and playing their first home game next Monday. Imagine. Starting this weekend, others teams will be flying into Miami, one of the epicenters of the virus.
Baseball like other sports will go on without fans in the stands for the foreseeable future. Replacing crowds and crowd noise will be 75 different available crowd reactions to pipe through the stadium PA systems. So we’re pretending there are fans there. How bizarre.
The NBA resumes its season in the Orlando bubble July 30, with the Heat’s first game back (against Denver) on August 1.
The NHL restarts with playoffs on August 1 in two hub cities, with the Panthers beginning a five-game series against . the Islanders in Toronto.
Within a week or 10 days all of our sports will be back at it with games that count happening in empty arenas and stadiums, and football fields will (theoretically) be filled with players preparing for a season.
All of it surrounded by an ongoing coronavirus that as of Monday had killed nearly 140,000 Americans.
Sports are restarting not as some magnanimous, heroic gesture to boost America’s morale. That’s a byproduct leagues may try to take credit for. But get it straight: Sports are restarting in a pandemic to rescue their own bottom line and stave off the financial hit. No fans in the stands to buy their $12 beers, but at least the TV revenue will be flowing again.
We saw what happened when too many states including Florida reopened their economies prematurely. COVID-19 cases spike. So do deaths.
Sports are OK with putting their teams and athletes at an increased risk by playing right now. The risk is lessened by extreme caution and health and safety protocols and all of that. But the risk is still there.
How MLB and the NBA and NHL manage their restarts will be a Petri dish of sorts, and you can bet the NFL and college football will be watching closely.
Because right now the whole restart of sports and the prospect of football happening at all are precarious, fragile things indeed.