Scott Stinson on COVID-19: We have no clue when sports will return. Talk of truncated seasons is pointless
|National Post 26 Mar 2020 at 14:33|
In February, which the calendar says was just a month ago even though it feels like several lifetimes, the Wall Street Journal ran a story that examined the possibility of a coronavirus disruption of North American sports events.
It quoted an infectious-disease expert who noted that the experience with previous outbreaks — SARS and the H1N1 flu, for example — was that large public gatherings were not a particular trouble spot.
But as with so many things with the COVID-19 pandemic, that argument was quickly overwhelmed by new evidence. The revelation that the coronavirus can be transmitted by unwitting, asymptomatic carriers has utterly changed the calculus for mass gatherings.
And it’s why, as much as the past few days has seen officials from the NHL, NBA and MLB speak about the potential for truncated seasons that lie ahead, they really can’t do anything other than wait. They can draw up contingencies for weird schedules and knockout tournaments and shortened games that would allow for compressed seasons, but none of that will matter for some time yet. The instinct to discuss possibilities is understandable; it’s not like anyone in the sports world has anything else to do. But even speculating about a return to busy stadiums is to imagine a normalcy that we are a long way from achieving. It’s not helpful. We have to wait, and then wait some more.
Domestic leagues are in the exact opposite situation as the International Olympic Committee, which was finally shamed this week into postponing Tokyo 2020 into 2021, it hopes. Where the Olympics were a pressing immediate problem because athletes had to choose between public health and preparing for Tokyo, the professional sports leagues don’t have that kind of urgency. They have economic concerns, to be sure, but their athletes don’t have to train toward a particular date. They can keep fit as best they can, safely, and with all teams operating under the same physical-distancing restrictions, there is something close to a level playing field being maintained. Will some players hit the ice cream a bit too hard in the meantime? Absolutely. But pro athletes are used to working themselves back into shape after a layoff. That will be true if leagues start to resume training a month or three months or six months from now.
A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he walks past the Olympics logo at the Olympic park on March 25, 2020 in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
The problem that is staring our leagues in the face, and which they probably don’t particularly want to think about right now, is that there are places on the continent where the virus is rampant, and which appear a long way from anything close to containment. In Canada, the optimistic view is that the steady rise of positive cases is the result of increased testing, and a clearing of a waiting-for-results backlog. If the extreme physical-distancing measures now in place are effective, we could see a peak in a matter of weeks. Again, that’s the optimistic view: It could get much worse, if rates of community spread are higher than feared, if the testing net has a lot of holes and if the stay-home mantra isn’t sufficiently followed.
But then look at somewhere like New York. That state already has more than 30,000 positive cases, close to ten times the amount in Canada but with two-thirds the population. Each day brings frightening new stories of struggling hospitals and equipment shortages. There are seven teams in New York between the NHL, NBA and MLB — how could any of those leagues even begin to imagine a return to action given the public-health struggles there?
Each day brings frightening new stories of struggling hospitals and equipment shortages
It is just a hypothesis at this point. Italy has better things to do now than start trying to figure out how many of the Atalanta-Valencia attendees have come down with coronavirus.
But that makes the numbers no less worrisome. If any of these leagues were to get back up and running soon, and someone gave you free tickets to a game at Madison Square Garden, would you go?
Our most powerful weapon is that we know what it is and we can learn from people who have already suffered through it
Looking back at how politicians reacted, how the public felt and what was normal just a week ago makes the change even more abrupt
We may dodge a big bullet here. ... But we may well end up in a situation where we have to make some very tough ethical decisions