By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sports. Are they important? Well, no, they’re not really important. But also … yes! Yes. Sports are very important. They are the No. 1 source of daily entertainment. They create memories that last lifetimes and build bonds with friends and family that can never break. They power the economy and they serve as a central hub in cities around the globe.
So yes, sports aren’t life or death. But they’re important.
As such, as the nation begins to tiptoe out of this coronavirus shutdown, we don’t have to feel too bad about focusing our attention on sports. We’ve all been good, we’ve all followed the rules, and we’ve all watched every single thing there is to watch on Netflix/Amazon/Hulu. For the love of Pete, we all watched a 10-hour documentary.
We need our sports back.
That being said, getting those sports back won’t be easy. For one — and this is kind of a big one — it doesn’t seem like we really have a handle on the virus. There are still questions about the way it’s transmitted, it’s not known if the antibodies produced from the virus make a person immune, and there still aren’t many answers when it comes to treating the disease and mitigating its spread, outside of staying cooped up at home all the time.
Then there are the details. Can the NHL just say “sorry but no” to the half-dozen teams on the playoff bubble? At the same time, does it make sense to bring a last-place team out of quarantine just to play some potentially very meaningless hockey games? The NBA could get away with starting with the playoffs right away, but what might the rust factor look like in the most important games of the year?
MLB has its own set of issues, though those seem to have been ironed out. Limiting travel, putting the DH in both leagues, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. The problem? Money. Of course it is.
And though the NFL may seem to be the farthest away from dealing with the virus, the reality is that football teams are already missing out on organized team activities. And with training camps needing to open in July, the date is coming faster than one might think. Add in the reality that, you know, football players tackle each other and slam faces together and bleed and sweat and god-knows-what-else all over each other for a living, and the whole concept of playing the sport when a global pandemic has yet to really be solved seems a bit of a wild idea.
Other than that? Getting sports back should be easy.
As of now, we have NASCAR, because — despite the obvious interactions on pit road and whatnot — driving a car is a delightful form of social distancing. We also have golf, which debuted over the weekend with a charity skins match, will continue this weekend with a Tiger/Phil/Peyton/TB12 sideshow, and the PGA Tour will return in earnest (without fans) in a few weeks.
That’s all great, for sure. But without our four major sports, our country is dented. Once they’re all back and playing, things will feel right — at least a little bit.
With that in mind, here’s one sports guy’s confidence rating in how likely we are to see the return of each major sports league in North America in 2020. We’ll rank them from least likely to most likely.
4. Major League Baseball
Two words: Baseball players.
Five more words; Major League Baseball Players’ Association.
That kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it?
That’s not to necessarily demonize the players. Hardly. If their work generates billions of dollars of revenue, then they’re entitled to those bananaland salaries that the select few are able to earn. They have a strong union, and they deserve it. This isn’t about that.
This is about the inflexibility of baseball players, dating back decades. We all missed out on seeing Pedro Martinez and the Montreal Expos win a World Series back in 1994, because the players and the owners had to have a big fight about money. Twenty-six years later, here we are again.
The players are arguing that they already gave a concession when they graciously agreed to take only the proration of their salary, based on games played. An 81-game season would net them half of their agreed-upon salary. That’s not really a concession at all though, is it? Doing half the work will generally get you half the pay in any industry.
Since then, the owners realized that without tens of thousands of fans filling the ballpark every night, they’re going to lose out on some revenue. A lot of revenue. So they’ve asked the players to take a deeper pay cut. The players, surprise of all surprises, aren’t very interested in that. (Granted, the owners conveniently leave out the part where they’ve been swimming in insane profits for years and could stand to take a minor financial hit if they are indeed interested in buoying American spirits by providing fans with the great American pastime this summer. The owners do fail to mention their decades upon decades of easy profits, all stacked up together to the point where the millions start to become billions. They’ve left that part out in their cries of operating at a deficit for a few months during a pandemic.)
So, listen to what Blake Snell said, see how much support he has among his baseball-playing brethren, and realize that it would be most unwise to hold your breath waiting for Opening Day 2020.
Man, that is sad.
3. National Hockey League
Two words: Gary Bettman.
Cheap shot? Debatable!
Accurate? Feels like it.
Gary Bettman has been driving the NHL train for 27 years. In that time, he’s overseen not one work stoppage, not two work stoppages, but three work stoppages and what amounted to two full seasons. The loss of the entire 2004-05 season came at a time when television revenues were exploding in professional sports; Bettman struck a deal to get his league on the Outdoor Life Network when it returned from hiatus.
Gary Bettman, everybody!
Thanks to the miracles of modern science, it does seem like creating ice around the country through the summer won’t be a problem. And hockey players, well, they generally want to play hockey.
(To offset the potential inequities of ending the regular season without giving bubble teams the chance to make the playoffs, the NHL is considering letting 24 of the league’s 31 teams into the postseason. That would be more than 77 percent of the league’s teams making the playoffs. That gives you a picture of just how bad the ideas can be during times of crisis.)
But the questions about starting in the regular season or the playoffs, and the questions about centralized locations or perhaps travel, and the general eeriness of a team hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup inside of a hollow, vacant, echo-filled arena, they all leave an air of uncertainty around the NHL’s return in 2020.
Add in the whole reality that Bettman and the NHL have always had the unique ability to enter a room like Kevin with a pot of chili …
… and it really starts to crystallize that the league may utilize its unique ability to turn the tiniest speed bump into a colossal mountain range.
2. National Basketball Association
Adam Silver has has spent his six yeas as commissioner building up tremendous confidence and instilling full confidence in his leadership abilities. In a sports world where commissioners can seemingly only do the wrong thing and get roundly mocked at all turns, that’s quite the feat.
It’s largely that level of confidence, plus the prudence the NBA showed in being the first North American pro sports league to promptly shut down in March, that makes it feel like if any league can pull this off, it’s Silver and the NBA.
Complications abound, obviously. The virus — which quickly made its way through Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Durant, Marcus Smart, and several other players — is a problem in and of itself. That’s why even if the players all live in a bubble in Disney World or Las Vegas, the reality is it could all stop in an instant if somebody tests positive. The NBA has learned firsthand how quickly and silently the disease can spread.
That, though, seems to be the biggest (only?) source of doubt. When it comes to establishing a fair way to finish the season and postseason, there’s full confidence in the NBA’s ability to figure it out. Add in the potential lack of need for traveling, plus all of the possibilities for social media and TV broadcast benefits of having the league’s biggest stars around all at once, and the NBA could be able to turn the end of the 2020 season into a net positive.
1. National Football League
The NFL has spent years as the sports world’s monolith, an absolute behemoth that managed to operate in its own special universe while caring very, very little for outside criticisms. Say what you want about a corporation that powerful … but it’s oddly served them rather well during this pandemic.
Granted, the NFL obviously wasn’t playing when COVID-19 swept through North America, with the Super Bowl wrapping up a full six weeks before it really became a crisis in the U.S. From that standpoint, the timing worked out for the NFL to be able take a deep breath before making any rash decisions at all.
Since then, the NFL has … kind of carried on as if a pandemic wasn’t happening. Free agency opened without a delay, with Tom Brady’s move to Tampa capturing the attention of America. The league then went ahead and held the draft as scheduled, albeit with all involved parties working from home. That setup created myriad issues, as coaches and scouts couldn’t see prospects in person and couldn’t bring them in to their facilities for workouts and interviews. The NFL didn’t really care though, essentially telling teams, “Tough nuggets, figure it out.”
And … well, if we’re being honest, it all went off without a hitch. Damn it, NFL, you’ve really done it this time.
Now we’re getting into the portion of the calendar where life gets difficult for the NFL. Buildings are opening very slowly around the league, but not to coaches. Getting 90 players through the door, into locker rooms, sharing tight quarters, sitting in meeting rooms, sharing showers, and of course smashing into each other in full-speed head-on collisions? Yeah, that’s going to be difficult. (Look at the havoc that MRSA has wreaked on locker rooms over the years to get an idea of how bad a coronavirus outbreak could spread.)
But the NFL is nothing if not doggedly determined to carry on throughout this matter. Playing the country’s most intense professional sport in front of 75,000 empty seats will be weird as all hell, especially in places like Seattle and Kansas City, and even in the two new stadiums set to open. But there’s oddly some confidence that the NFL will even figure out that aspect.
While the issue of the virus remains very real (face shields with N95 material don’t seem like they’ll prevent much sharing of droplets, if we’re being honest here), the NFL seems equipped to put its figurative head down and make it work.