Ever since COVID-19 brought sports in America to a screeching halt in March, questions have swirled with regard to the proper way and time in which leagues should resume play, if at all.
The proposed answers to those questions have caused about as much division among the public as the state of the current sociopolitical climate in the U.S. has. Sports fans and athletes alike have debated endlessly for five months now about whether or not it’s safe to return to action, even if the players are confined to a “bubble” with no spectators in the stands and regular testing protocols in place.
Now, just one week after Major League Baseball became the first major American sports league to return to play, it’s becoming clearer than ever that having sports simply may not be a viable option in the world we’re currently living in.
For those that didn’t get the memo, MLB has suspended the Miami Marlins’ season through at least this Sunday after 15 of the club’s 33 players who traveled to Philadelphia for last weekend’s series with the Phillies tested positive for the coronavirus.
Yes, 15 out of 33. Nearly half the Marlins’ roster. And that isn’t counting a pair of staff members who also tested positive.
Those numbers are catastrophic, to say the least.
MLB tried to act quickly once the bad news came screaming in worse than an Aroldis Chapman fastball. Miami’s scheduled home games against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday and Tuesday were postponed, and its traveling party has remained quarantined in Philadelphia while undergoing daily testing. In addition, the Phillies’ four scheduled contests with the New York Yankees this week were also nixed out of “an abundance of caution.”
Following those scheduling quirks and Tuesday’s reveal of the Marlins’ four most recent positive cases, MLB called off the Marlins’ games at Baltimore on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as their three-game series against the World Series champion Washington Nationals originally scheduled for this weekend in Miami.
Now, as the NBA and NHL prepare to resume the remainder of their respective seasons and NFL teams start reporting for training camps, MLB’s outbreak has snapped the gravity of our circumstances back into sharp focus and forced everyone, from fans and players to those in charge of these leagues, to once again ask the difficult questions that have lingered for months.
Is it really possible to play entire sports seasons while a pandemic is still very much going on?
Furthermore, is it really worth the risk to those involved to stay this course?
We aren’t just talking about the threat of athletes and staff members contracting COVID-19 and spreading it like wildfire among their colleagues as the Marlins have. We’re talking about the very real possibilities that, if MLB, the NBA, the NHL, the NFL and college football all insist on proceeding with their campaigns under the current conditions, it could have far-reaching effects on future seasons.
It’s clear at this point that, whether we’re talking about MLB’s postponing games for a handful of clubs or college football teams and conferences calling off nonconference games (if not canceling fall sports altogether), playing sports through this pandemic is a stop-and-go proposition at best. Athletes are creatures of habit; they’re used to following strict, disciplined routines both in and out of season.
Assuming MLB doesn’t have any further coronavirus catastrophies, the season would end around the same timeframe it does normally, which is late-October or early-November. That’s a VERY big if, however. Let’s say there are multiple outbreaks akin to the one the Marlins are having now, resulting in multitudes of games getting rescheduled and the season drifting toward Thanksgiving, or later. That would upset the regimen of all players--pitchers in particular. Many are careful to rest their arms during the offseason, given the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries over the past decade-plus.
In a stop-and-go campaign that runs well into November--if not later--pitchers who play deep into the postseason could potentially have only a two-month respite before having to report for spring training next February. That’s not good for the long-term health of an ulnar collateral ligament, folks.
What about basketball and hockey players, all of whom would be well into their offseasons at the moment? They generally build themselves back up by the time training camps open in the fall, but what happens if virus complications elongate the remainder of the rebooted NBA and NHL seasons? Will those leagues delay the start of their 2020-21 campaigns? If so, they’d have to shorten their schedules in order to complete next season on time and get players back into their normal routines.
Furthermore, if these virus-rebooted seasons force leagues to play shorter schedules next year, are they prepared to take the revenue hit from fewer contests for fans to attend (assuming that’s allowed by next year)? That’s a big question, especially given the fact that they’re not bringing in any gate receipts at the moment.
Earlier this week, the Virginia High School League approved a proposal that will delay the start of high school sports in the commonwealth until mid-to-late December, allowing for the virus to (hopefully) taper off by then for the sake of its student-athletes.
The VHSL is often regarded for dragging its feet in matters that have common-sense solutions, but it made the prudent choice in this situation by electing to punt on sports for essentially the remainder of 2020. The big boys should follow that lead, even if it means sacrificing more money by not declaring a 2020 champion.
In a matter of money or health--both short and long term--what’s more important? Both life and sports rarely offer mulligans, but after months on the sidelines and a tenuous restart, one can’t help but think the Marlins’ outbreak is just that--a last chance for these leagues to make the correct call and wash their hands of 2020.