Sparrow's Nest: Sports in the Time of Coronavirus

It’s been about five months since I last did this column, and boy, what a wild five months it has been. There was the tragic death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident, the franchise-altering trade of Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts and the departure of Tom Brady from his 20-year employer, the New England Patriots. Nevertheless, none of these can come close to the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on the entire sports world and beyond. Studying in Barcelona for half of the semester allowed me to witness the virus’s impact on European sports, and American sports upon my return. I didn’t plan on writing anything until the fall, but this virus has demonstrated that plans change, and we must adjust accordingly. My job (does it still count as a job if I’m not getting paid?) is to share my thoughts and opinions when it comes to sports, so that’s exactly what I’ll do.

As of right now, almost all sports leagues around the world are suspended, unless the Belarusian Premier League is your thing (no judgement). Serie A, the top-flight of Italian soccer, was the first to halt in early March after initially attempting to play without spectators. Within two weeks, all of the major soccer leagues were shut down, including the Champions League, where a Valencia-Atalanta match in Valencia led to one of the first major outbreaks in Spain.

In the United States, a mid-March game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was called right before tip-off after it was discovered that Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. The next day, all of the major American sports leagues were put on pause. The NCAA cancelled March Madness and the entire spring season, the PGA pushed back the Masters to November and the All-England Club decided to not hold Wimbledon for the first time since 1945. I could go on and list every instance of sporting events being postponed affected by coronavirus, but just know that not much is happening.

So what is going on at this time? Sports are trying to adapt. The NBA has tried a number of different alternatives, from having players compete against each other in the NBA 2K video game to a HORSE tournament including WNBA and retired stars, all televised on ESPN. The reviews have been mixed at best (does anyone care who the best virtual basketball player is?), and the ratings have been disappointing. In terms of ratings, ESPN has been hurting, and it’s pretty easy to tell. Without anything to broadcast or even talk about, they’ve resorted to showing baseball playoff games from 25 years ago and the highlights of the Belarusian Premier League in primetime (still no judgement). However, they’ve recorded two recent successes.

Thanks to a suggestion by LeBron James, ESPN chose to move up the premiere of their much-anticipated Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” by two months. The premiere became the most watched program in the history of the network and is a must-watch if you’re a sports fan or have nothing better to do on a Sunday night (I know you don’t). The other was the NFL Draft. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been insistent on keeping the status quo with the league in its offseason.

After free agency went relatively smoothly, Goodell remained firm on holding the annual draft of college players to the 32 franchises on its normal dates despite criticism from various team members. What was originally going to be a lavish spectacle hosted in Las Vegas was transformed into a giant Zoom from Goodell’s house in Bronxville. The craziest part? It worked. The event became the most watched in draft history as the heartwarming scenes of the draftees celebrating with their families and the coaches having their kids help with the picks was a sign of hope during a bleak time. Furthermore, the NFL raised more than $6.6 million for COVID-19 relief via a concurrent “Draft-A-Thon” to bring their total to more than $100 million. For all the criticism that the NFL usually deserves, this time, they got it right.

For the leagues that were in the midst of their season, the transition hasn’t been as simple. Executives from the NBA, MLB and NHL have taken pay cuts, teams have committed to paying their employees for the foreseeable future and players are still getting paid in full. This isn’t sustainable though. The longer the pause drags on, the likelier it is that workers will get furloughed, and the players will be asked to forfeit a portion of their salary. In order to avoid that scenario, each league has tossed around the idea of sequestering the teams in specific locations and playing in empty stadiums: Las Vegas for the NBA, Arizona/Texas/Florida for the MLB, North Dakota for the NHL. Each idea has its own list of pros and cons, and the talks are still preliminary, but none of those possibilities are very likely without one important factor: more testing.

There must be a strict schedule put in place in which the players are transported from their lodging to the arena and back with minimal interaction from anyone else. They have to be willing to be apart from their families, at least for a few months. They need to be tested weekly to see if anyone is positive. If someone contracts coronavirus, the league has to appropriately deal with the situation without shutting down the whole operation. Finally, protect those that are needed to work the games. The cameramen, sideline reporters and coaches need the same testing. As a former ballperson at the US Open, I’ve dealt with my fair share of players’ towels covered in sweat, mucus and even blood. Moving forward, players will need to be responsible for their own belongings. Is this feasible? Well, there are some signs of optimism. Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, is tentatively scheduled to resume matches on May 9 with mandatory testing. The NBA also announced that they will reopen training facilities in states where shelter-in-place orders aren’t in action. But despite these measures, one big factor remains in the air: what role will the fans play in all of this?

Being a fan of a team is so much more than just wearing their jerseys and celebrating their victories. It’s about watching games alongside friends, struggling with excruciating defeats and finding previously hidden connections with people that share your allegiances. So how are clubs going to keep fans involved without games and empty or limited stadiums upon reopening? 

Well, the Los Angeles Lakers provided an excellent example of what NOT to do. As the second most valuable team in the NBA at $4.4 billion, the Lakers recently returned a $4.6 million loan that they received through the Paycheck Protection Program, intended to aid small businesses hurt by the pandemic. While they did have the decency to give back the money, they risk alienating much of their fanbase as thousands of companies were unable to secure a loan.

Each league has tried new strategies to raise money. The NBA and Fanatics have partnered to create cloth face masks donning the logo of every team with all proceeds benefiting Feeding America and Second Harvest. (As a Knicks fan, I prefer a paper bag to cover my whole face –– it’s cheaper and it properly hides my shame.) But if –– and when –– these leagues return, it won’t be business as usual. They should implement creative ways to thank those that have been risking their lives for the safety of others. Have doctors Zoom into the broadcast to sing the National Anthem. Let essential workers throw out the opening pitch to their children from the confines of their houses. Make every home run hit, touchdown scored and three-pointer made $1,000 towards a charity of that player’s choice. Nothing is normal right now, and the leagues must act accordingly.

I’ve been a sports fan my entire life and never could I even dream up a situation that could rival what we’re seeing now. It’s crazy times like these that people show their true colors. I’ve never been more reminded of the hard fact that sports are a business. With leagues all around the world bleeding money, they are going to do everything within their power to get teams back out on the field in some form. Not for the fans, not for their employees, not for the athletes –– for money. Between the loss of revenue from ticket sales, merchandise and possibly TV contracts, I’m worried that those in charge may rush the leagues back to resumption without taking proper precautions to ensure the safety of those that drive the profit. There’s much more than just dollars at stake; there are lives at stake. When sports return –– and they will return at some point –– they can’t just be a distraction from the problem. They have to be part of the solution.