The fear was that sports seasons might end prematurely in the fall because of a second wave of the coronavirus.
The reality is we might not even get that far. From the looks of things in Tampa Bay, just opening a locker room is a prelude to a medical crisis.
In a matter of hours this week, the Lightning shut down Amalie Arena after multiple players tested positive, the Phillies and Blue Jays closed their spring training facilities in Clearwater and Dunedin, a Buccaneers assistant coach tested positive, as well as two USF football players.
And you still have hopes of seeing Tom Brady in the flesh at Raymond James Stadium?
I hate to say it, but this isn’t a fluke. It feels more like an omen or, at the very least, a wake-up call. It’s as if we got a little bit cocky, and the pandemic gave sports fans a tap on the shoulder to remind us who’s in charge.
This isn’t just a Tampa Bay problem. Multiple college football players at Alabama, Clemson, Mississippi State, Houston, Central Florida, Auburn and Texas have tested positive recently. So has PGA Tour player Nick Watney, as well as a golfer and three caddies on the PGA’s developmental tour.
The more we get together in groups, the more we risk rendezvousing later in the emergency room.
We’ve already seen it in restaurants and bars that have had to quickly shut down in Florida. The total number of cases in the state are on the rise and, more ominously, so is the percentage of positive tests. That’s not a political construct, it’s a medical trend.
So you can probably forget about your season tickets. No matter how much NFL owners or Southeastern Conference officials fantasize about having fans in their football stadiums in the fall, it’s unconscionable to think we could exacerbate a pandemic simply because we want to sit on the 30-yard line. Unless you’re a major sponsor or booster, you probably won’t get any closer than your flat screen TV.
As for the games themselves, the odds are looking more and more bleak.
There’s a reason the NHL, NBA and MLB have put out encyclopedia-sized brochures about combating the pandemic but have conspicuously avoided spelling out what it would take to shut their seasons down again.
The leagues knew positive tests were inevitable, and they didn’t want to paint themselves into a germ-filled corner by specifying how many cases were too many. So they talk about tests, and contact tracing and quarantining, but they never acknowledge how close they’re willing to get to the cliff.
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In the end, it will probably be society’s call.
There are legitimate arguments to be made about reopening communities to prevent an economic meltdown, but there is a wide gap between isolation and tailgate parties. Masks help. Eliminating crowds helps. Common sense helps.
If a large number of people continue behaving as if masks are part of a communist plot, and drinking elbow to elbow in a bar is a sign of virility and patriotism, then the death toll will climb. And if that happens, the pressure to shut down sports will ultimately drown out the fervor to see a bunch of hockey players lifting the Stanley Cup.
Baseball, basketball, football and hockey are not essential to our lives. If nothing else, the last three months have taught us that.
And yet, sports do hold a special place in our hearts. They are entertainment. They are escape. They are a means to argue, bond, recall, mesmerize, compete and admire. It would be a shame if we sacrificed for three months, and then still lost an entire year’s worth of games because we couldn’t get out of the starting gate.
I honestly don’t know if every sport will resume, but it’s hard to be optimistic based on this week.
We’re talking about just a handful of people getting together in a hockey arena or spring training locker room or a football office, and already a conspicuously high number of positive cases.
Maybe it’s a lesson, and maybe we’ll get smarter.
Or maybe it’s a portent of things to come.