Just a few months ago, sports were doing what they’ve always done — bringing us together for shared experiences like few things can.
There was anticipation around March college basketball and the promise of a new baseball season as the NBA entered a final stretch with compelling storylines.
But the world and sports won't resemble what they were just months ago any time soon. Empty stadiums and arenas are likely, if we see any sports for the remainder of 2020.
The shockingly expected alternative to no fans is no sports at all.
The NBA announced Monday that it is planning on opening up practice facilities to teams no earlier than Friday, May 8 for individual workouts, with social distancing practices remaining in place.
In states that are loosening restrictions, like Georgia, facilities can open to players for individual workouts. That may be a far cry from the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers sparring in the Western Conference Finals, but it’s the first small sliver of hope that there could be a resumption of the NBA season in the future.
In the European country most clobbered by the coronavirus, the Italian prime minister Sunday cleared individual sports to begin practices starting Sunday, May 3. Team sports like Serie A soccer and stars like Cristiano Ronaldo can return to training on May 18, according to the prime minister, with hopes that the season can be salvaged and completed over the summer.
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These are a couple baby steps on the way to putting the ball or puck back in play.
Players require weeks of training before games that count can be played, so any sports trying to come back are still at least a month away—and that’s with empty seats.
The glaring obstacle remains the gross lack of knowledge about the novel coronavirus. Even freed of fans, resuming play remains complicated due to unanswered questions about the modern plague. As the World Health Organization pointed out over the weekend, no study has been done on immunity to future infections. Further, the WHO stated that studies on the antibodies show people who recovered had antibodies, but "some of these people have very low levels of neutralizing antibodies in the blood, suggesting that cellular immunity may also be critical for recovery."
The science simply isn't in.
And, there is still no cure or proven treatment for COVID-19.
Even if antibody tests prove that a player had COVID-19 and recovered, there is presently no evidence that he or she cannot get the virus again, grow more ill from a second infection or pass the virus on to teammates, coaches and their families.
The more one thinks about how sports could possibly return, the more one runs into concrete walls that dramatically force a change of direction on how this could all work out.
The screwball idea of putting baseball players all in one location and isolating them from the world without fans was dead on arrival after players like Angels star Mike Trout explained some of the holes in the plan.
"Obviously, I can't miss the birth of our first child," Trout said, pointing out that his wife was pregnant.
Notably, the strength of the players' union in that sport is best presented with a reminder that none of the Houston Astros players who admitted to cheating to win the World Series has been punished.
Completely isolating players away from their families for months is a non-starter—and that’s likely true for all major sports leagues. LeBron James of the Lakers shared similar views as Trout when he was on the “Road Trippin” podcast in March.
On baseball's Arizona isolation plan, Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said, "I will say that situation, I just don’t see that happening. I’m not going to be away from my family and not see them for four and a half months."
The best hope to see sports any time soon requires science and technology provide dramatic improvements in testing over the coming months: speed; accuracy; availability. The most plausible method for the NBA or any sports leagues resuming play--short of a miracle cure--involves religiously testing players, personnel and anyone else that comes into contact with the practice or game facilities prior to allowing entry.
Theoretically, for the NBA to finish its season safely, it would need to convert all of its practice and game locations where people gather into drive-thru testing sites. Entry would require driving up and passing a rapid test that ideally doesn’t involve being nasally violated with a giant swab stick.
If you fail the test, you don’t enter the facility.
Even under that type of heavy control, the plan has as many holes as Swiss cheese. For example, if Anthony Davis of the Lakers tests positive for COVID-19 before entering the game site against the Clippers in Game 2 of a playoffs series, is he out for the series? What about all of the Lakers and Clippers that played a day or two earlier in Game 1? Is the team trainer no longer able to treat players? Is that game canceled or postponed? Or do the Lakers play without Davis for the remainder of the series if everyone else tests negative?
If testing is up to where it needs to be to keep everyone safe, positive tests are bound to occur.
There are plenty of coaches and team personnel that are in at-risk age groups, without even factoring medical histories. Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, one of the greatest coaches of all time, is 71. The Spurs may not be in the playoff picture, but Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is 68. So, do the Rockets just not have their coach anymore because he's at-risk? Does the team have to find a new coach? Or does the league accept the possibility that a death or multiple deaths could occur?
More than half the NBA’s head coaches are over 50. Add in assistant coaches and developmental coaches, and an outbreak could be disastrous and deadly for the NBA.
This is in no way an isolated problem only for the NBA.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is 68, and the Super Bowl champion coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, Andy Reid, is 62. If the NFL plans to start its season with no fans in the stands and ramps up testing every person coming into practice and game facilities, that’s a massive endeavor that would require each team to turn into a private testing lab--without even accounting for false negative tests.
Even then, gathering the number of people required to play an NFL season—without fans—would put scores of people and their families at-risk every time the team convened for practices and games.
"We will have coronavirus in the fall--I am convinced of that," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said recently, before adding that the gravity of that coronavirus in the fall was unknown.
The NFL is far from guaranteed to have a season, just as kids are far from guaranteed to go back to schools and colleges in the fall.
College sports are toast until campuses move away from remote learning, which may not happen until there's a vaccine. Even if you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that a vaccine will not be available for more than a year—at the minimum.
Ironically, the immoral decision to cut out college football and basketball players from the money they earn while risking their limbs forces the NCAA to take the moral decision of choosing safety over profits and leaving the players at home until schools resume regular instruction.
American professional sports leagues, however, will inevitably attempt to chart paths to resume play in the coming months. Individual sports like tennis and golf provide the safest bets, but even those offer logistic and ethical challenges.
For the time being, though, multi-billion dollar sports leagues can't figure how to resume operations without putting their employees at risk despite being privileged enough to tilt the table with rivers of resources, mountains of money and a modified product that limits exposure by eliminating fans.
If or when they do figure it out, one thing is for sure--it won't look like it did six months ago. Don't expect to see any fans in the stands.