Return of sport: ‘we sure about this?’
Anticipation fuels sports. You are constantly expecting something to stir your emotions: a superb match-up, a play-off run, the chase of a record, the dawn of a new season, the debut of a potential superstar.
Depending on the teams you root for, what is next can inspire some worry, but in general, sport is a domain of abundant hope. You can always conjure reason to believe the wait will be worth it.
So, of course, as 2020 continues its inexorable march through misery, the novel coronavirus has invaded that happy place, too.
Now that more American sports leagues are within weeks of their scheduled returns, the anticipation has encountered a redoubtable foe, one that muddles the comeback experience: trepidation.
Unless you prefer to pretend the virus is losing strength and will vanish on its own, you have a basic comprehension of the inherent conflict. It makes the usual “I can't wait” expectation of sport's arrival collide with, “Wait, what if this is a disaster?” consternation.
Seldom does the craving of this joy come with so much legitimate fear. The present sporting conundrum, as much as anything in society, demonstrates the challenges of pursuing any form of normalcy during this unusual and dangerous time.
In the United States, the Covid-19 pandemic is not under control. It still rages. We are still playing catch-up. In an embarrassing politicisation of health and safety, we have folded this crisis into our exhausting American culture war, and it has resulted in a troubling indicator of escalation: surging numbers of reported coronavirus cases. And contrary to Donald Trump's truth-mangling assertion that that is merely the result of more testing, the percentage of people testing positive also has climbed — to its highest rate since early May. Over the past two months, we have regressed, and in some cities, hospital admittances have risen again to a concerning level.
Into this environment, more sport leagues seek to return and either start or finish their seasons. Among them: the WNBA, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS. Training camps for the NFL and college football seasons are coming soon, too. While there is no uniform approach, the leagues have put some of their best ideas into action — bubble venues, compact seasons, detailed protocols, spending money for the most frequent testing — yet their formulas still seem to equal one big, bad idea.
Nearly four months have passed since sport went dark on March 12. At the time, it was considered a significant symbol of the pandemic's seriousness, a tipping point in our understanding that we are facing a crisis and not being duped by overreaction or hoax. It had a fleeting impact, however.
We are not built to persist with collectivism, not even when the opponent causes great suffering. There's something broken about a country that needs Jerome Adams, the US Surgeon-General, to appeal to Americans by saying, “If you want the return of college football this year, wear a face covering.”
A six-figure death total was not convincing enough. So now we are resorting to football bribery.
While most of us cannot relate to the millions and billions at stake, everyone is attempting to salvage something. So the mission to reclaim and stabilise is familiar. But it's fair to wonder whether sport is confusing its difficult time with a desperate one.
New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick explained the players' dilemma recently as he prepared to go to Disney World to finish the NBA season. Despite being in favour of the effort, he was honest about the inner conflict.
“To say that we have any sort of comfort level would be a lie,” Redick said. “There is no comfort level. We're not with our families. We're not at our homes. We're isolated in a bubble in the middle of a hotspot in the middle of Florida — while there's social unrest going on in the country. And we're three months away from potentially the most important election in our lifetimes.”
In March, a few positive tests shut down sport. Now teams are redefining what qualifies as risk. It's nuanced. It's also scary. Even for leagues that opted to play in bubble environments, it's unrealistic to expect zero cases. But what qualifies as safe enough to play? Or better yet, what is deemed tolerable? With the money involved, risk is a pliable term for many.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was frank during an interview this week with Fortune Brainstorm Health and admitted that a significant spread of the virus could “shut down” the league again. It was a glimpse into one decision-maker's mind.
“We won't be surprised when they first come down to Orlando if we have some additional players test positive,” Silver said. “What would be most concerning once players enter this campus, and then go through our quarantine period, if they were to test positive or if we were to have any positive tests, we would know we would have an issue.
“We would know that there's, in essence, a hole in our bubble or that our quarantine or our campus is not working in some way. So that would be very concerning.”
The various sports and their leagues are so different, however. In baseball, the Washington Nationals are among several teams upset about the lag in receiving testing results, which is critical to easing the minds of players, coaches and staff, not to mention sustaining the season.
In college athletics, the morality of proceeding like professionals with amateur athletes who have no true representation is a serious issue. Every league has its own unique set of challenges, which is similar to the diverse issues of 50 states dealing with this pandemic differently.
Some will succeed. Some will just get by. Some figure to fail miserably.
You should hope failure isn't as serious or grave as it can be right now.
There is cognitive dissonance in every crevice of this strange sport experience, from the fan craving to the dollar-seeking teams and players. You know this is, at best, risky. You want it anyway.
So much anticipation. So much trepidation.
• Jerry Brewer is a sports columnist at The Washington Post. He joined the Post in 2015 after more than eight years as a columnist with The Seattle Times