Before we get too far into the upshot of this post, the thing the headline suggests, let’s be clear on one thing: The very best thing sports could probably do right now is just hit the collective pause button and try again in March.
Yes, that includes the NHL, WNBA and NBA which seem to be somewhat successfully — at least in terms of keeping out the coronavirus — navigating their restarts. And maybe that’s what the NBA and NHL will eventually end up doing with their 2020-21 seasons, assuming they can make it through the final part of their interrupted seasons.
It almost certainly applies to MLB and college sports, which have pretty much no shot of keeping COVID at bay given the nature of how they are going about things. And it applies to the NFL.
Divert the testing, financial and logistical muscles being pumped into these sports into more meaningful societal endeavors like, you know, trying to start schools in a safe manner.
But … now that my throat is clear, we all know that’s not going to happen. We’re already pretty far down the road with the restart of sports. There are TONS of games this weekend between MLB, NBA, WNBA and NHL. There is too much money at stake. And yes, there are a lot of fans enjoying the diversion of having sports to watch on TV instead of constantly doom-scrolling current events on their news feeds.
It’s nice to watch sports, even in their weird, sterile environments. And yes, even with completely bizarre fake fans — both cardboard cutouts and computer-generated — in the stands.
Here’s the thing, though: If coronavirus has taught us anything so far it’s that we need to learn from it. Barely a week into the MLB season, it seems pretty clear that the way baseball is going about things — no bubble, with players traveling to road games and mingling with family at home — is just not working. Under those conditions, outbreaks of the virus are inevitable, as a colleague of mine continues to correctly assert.
On Friday, 20% of MLB games are postponed because of COVID-related reasons. They’re already making modifications like seven-inning doubleheaders. The season continues to lurch forward, but of all the leagues currently in-season the biggest doubt about actually being able to finish has to be MLB.
The leagues operating in bubbles — the NBA, WNBA and NHL — have been relatively quiet in terms of coronavirus news. The NBA continues to tout zero positive tests from recent results. They are taking it seriously. They have a real plan, while MLB has seemingly adopted the U.S. health care plan: hope you don’t get sick.
All this brings us to the NFL. Like MLB, pro football owners and players agreed upon a season outside a bubble. No fans, in all likelihood, but also no bubble.
In a sport with more players, tons of coaches and much closer contact both in practice and games and countless outside interactions, the NFL seems destined to experience problems even worse than what MLB has experienced already. Even early testing from training camps have revealed tons of cases or exposures.
So here’s the deal: This is the last day of July. The Vikings aren’t scheduled to play their first game for about six weeks, on Sept. 13 against the Packers.
If the NFL is going to have any meaningful hope of playing this season, it needs to immediately get creative and pivot to an NBA-like bubble — you know, like Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested six weeks ago.
Yes, it’s far more complicated to try to play a full, long season in a bubble. From now until the end of the regular season would be about five months, compared to what will just be a much shorter duration for players in other bubbled leagues.
It would require renegotiating with players. It would probably mean more opt-outs for players who didn’t want to be away from families that long.
And it might require a creative schedule since finding enough quality fields in one contained area might be difficult. Football seven nights a week? OK, if we must …
If the goal is playing — again, not saying that should be the goal, but here we are — that is the only realistic way the NFL can do it.
They can either learn from MLB’s failure or they can repeat it. That’s the choice.