Sports are starting, but how long can they keep going? | column

At a time when Dr. Anthony Fauci warns that “we are going in the wrong direction” with the coronavirus pandemic, all the major U.S. sports plan to play, though a major cloud continues to darken.
A Los Angeles Angels fan rides a bike past the entrance of Angels Stadium on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. The Angels and other Major League Baseball teams will report to their respective facilities for training this week, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A Los Angeles Angels fan rides a bike past the entrance of Angels Stadium on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. The Angels and other Major League Baseball teams will report to their respective facilities for training this week, amid the coronavirus pandemic. [ ASHLEY LANDIS | AP ]
Published July 2, 2020

ATLANTA — The Braves will reconvene for nonspring training at Truist Park on Friday. Atlanta United will travel to Disney World on Saturday. NBA teams will head there soon; the defending champs, the Canadian-based Raptors, have settled in Fort Myers to serve their mandatory two-week quarantine.

Every league has a plan. But even the commissioner of the NBA, the league believed to have the best plan, isn’t sure anything will actually work. As Adam Silver told Time: “One thing we are learning about this virus is much (is) unpredictable, and we and our players together with their union look at the data on a daily basis. If there were something to change that was outside of the scope of what we are playing for, certainly we would revisit our plans.”

Meaning: stop playing. That’s the cloud hanging over every sport seeking to start/restart. The leagues know players will test positive. On March 11, the positive test for Rudy Gobert of the Jazz shut down all of sports; this time, leagues believe their plans can accommodate some positive tests. Major emphasis on “some.”

Even at a time when Dr. Anthony Fauci warns that “we are going in the wrong direction” and said he could envision 100,000 new cases a day, the question isn’t if sports will get going. The various leagues absolutely will try to play. At issue is how long they’ll keep playing.

A lot of folks who track baseball for a living don’t expect to see the sport in October, even though Major League Baseball has scheduled its playoffs for that month. The expectation is that the coronavirus will get worse with the autumn chill. Expectations also were that the summer might offer a lull. It did until it didn’t.

We in the South were the first to reopen. Now we’re wondering if we need to shut down again, even as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday: “We’re not going back, closing things. … People going to a business is not what’s driving (the COVID-19 spike). I think when you see the younger folks, I think a lot of it is more just social interactions, so that’s natural.”

The usual stipulation: There are those who don’t believe the pandemic is a big deal. They don’t practice social distancing. (Note: Some airlines have returned to selling every seat, which they weren’t doing three months ago.) They don’t believe in masks. This isn’t hard to understand. As a nation, we’re still not sure what we’re doing.

Los Angeles County closed its beaches for the holiday weekend. Texas again closed its bars. Jacksonville, site of the coming Republican Convention, mandated masks. So has Savannah. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp suggested Wednesday that we’d better mask up if we want to see college football.

And yet. Georgia as a state has not made masks a requirement. And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said of Friday’s planned celebration at Mount Rushmore: “We will not be social distancing.” Our nation’s president is expected to attend.

Last week the NBA tested 302 players. Sixteen, or 5.29 percent, were positive. That hasn’t deterred the league from moving ahead with its Disney bubble. Said Silver: “When we designed this plan, we were not seeing the kind of increases in cases … (But) our model was designed for this. Our model was designed to protect us and our players from the cases in the outside community. Maybe at the time we designed it, we didn’t think it would be as necessary as it is now.”

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Baseball players will have no bubble. They’ll either be living at home or traveling. Yes, they’ll be tested often, and yes, they’ll be protected on road trips in a way the ordinary traveler could never be. Still, four players — Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Joe Ross and Mike Leake — currently have opted out of the 2020 season. Wrote the 35-year-old Zimmerman, who is keeping a diary for the Associated Press: “My mother has multiple sclerosis and is super high-risk; if I end up playing, I can pretty much throw out the idea of seeing her until weeks after the season is over.”

A veteran baseball player such as Zimmerman shouldn’t have to worry about money. Not all of us can afford an unpaid break. Many no longer have anywhere to work. The rough consensus — and it’s a REALLY rough consensus — seems to hold that, from an economic perspective, we can’t shut down the way we did in March/April, but we can’t forget we’re in a pandemic, either. Which means … what?

Dr. T.J. Souryal, a former president of the NBA Physicians Association, told Marc Stein of the New York Times: “Until we have a functioning vaccine or treatment, there are no good options for a return to normal, sports or otherwise.”

I hope I’ll be proved wrong, but I’ll be surprised if all our sports make it through their reconfigured seasons. I’ll be shocked if MLB has its World Series. Too much would have to go right. And, since you asked: I still can’t imagine a way that football, which involves running into other people for three-plus hours, can be played in a safe, or even a semisafe, manner.

Barring a full-blown quarantine, semisafe might be the best we can ask. As Silver said on a conference call last week: “We are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus. No options are risk-free right now.”

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