The world of pro sports is marching forward with a sense of normalcy. The NBA had its draft on Wednesday, effectively opening the off-season, and there have already been bonkers trades and accusations of tampering.
The NHL is said to be moving toward a return to play, and the league and its players are haggling over money, because they are always haggling over money.
The NFL played on Thursday night and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll once again struggled to understand that it is possible to speak with a mask over one’s mouth.
As I say: Normalcy.
But it’s also striking just how differently various leagues are approaching the coronavirus for their 2021 seasons as compared with the ends of their 2020 campaigns. And it’s all the more incongruous given the spread of COVID-19 today relative to the spring. It’s understandable that these leagues are looking to operate their businesses amid a pandemic that isn’t going away, just like businesses everywhere are trying to do the same. They are loath to just down tools and absorb massive losses.
But I also keep thinking about the Justin Turner Conundrum. Turner, you’ll recall, had a positive COVID test result discovered literally in the middle of Game 6 of the World Series. He was pulled from the lineup, the Los Angeles Dodgers closed out the win without him and clinched the title. In the aftermath the big story was how Turner returned to the field to endanger his teammates and coaches — none of whom said they minded in the least, notably — but there was much less scrutiny over what Major League Baseball would have done had the Tampa Bay Rays come back to win that contest and force a deciding Game 7. Would they have shut the whole thing down for 10 days to ensure that Turner hadn’t already spread the virus to his teammates and opponents? Would they have buried the news and hoped for the best? This is the nuclear scenario that the sports world has so far managed to avoid since play resumed in the late spring and summer: A COVID test result that would make a meaningful game impossible to play on time, or would create a decided competitive advantage for one side. The NHL and NBA avoided this the first time around with their costly isolation bubbles that left very little to chance. MLB and the NFL went the other way, and have had COVID punch them right in the teeth repeatedly. The NFL’s coping mechanism, other than using up bye weeks to reschedule games, has been the fact that so many players miss football games due to injury anyway that teams can cobble together a functional roster even when they have COVID-related absences. But as the season ticks along it remains on a knife’s edge. No team will have a bye left after this week, so any large outbreak would force scheduling problems. And the games themselves now take on significant playoff importance, so the loss of a star player would be that much more impactful. The NFL is skating through this thing, but the Chiefs without Patrick Mahomes or the Seahawks without Russell Wilson would put rather a damper on the mood of a big game.
That will also be the situation for the NHL and NBA as they prepare for winter restarts. There is talk of travel reductions and procedures to limit the ways in which players and staff could come in contact with the coronavirus, but absent the bubbles deployed in the summer there will be a higher risk that COVID-19 will enter those team settings, where it has already been shown to be disruptive. As much as Canada is in the throes of a second wave, with some provinces locking down again and others considering it, the situation here is nothing like that in some part of the U.S., where positive COVID cases have skyrocketed and, in some instances, governments are determined to ride it out. Manitoba is the provincial hotspot in Canada right now, with daily new cases in the 34 per 100,000 people range. Alberta is closer to 25 per 100,000 and Ontario is down at around 10 per 100,000. Wisconsin and Minnesota are clocking in at daily new rates of more than 120 cases per 100,000. Illinois is at 94, Ohio is 63 and Michigan is at 73. The New York Times had to adjust its shading scale on its maps to account for growth rates that were so much higher than seen in the spring. Dark colours were bad, but they suddenly couldn’t go dark enough.
This isn’t to downplay the situation in this country or to suggest that efforts to control the virus here shouldn’t be accelerated. It’s to point out that as various teams are based in these states and are travelling through them, there is dramatically more spread of the virus now than there was when leagues first plotted their returns. Major League Soccer ran a Florida bubble on its return, but has since had teams moving freely about. On cue, its franchise in Miami will reportedly have three key players out of a playoff game on Friday.
The idea of pro leagues trying to maintain normal operations with all of their moving parts, and still avoiding the virus, brings to mind the image of a running back charging into a pile of bodies. Sometimes he comes out the other side just fine. But sometimes he gets tackled.