You think your view of the world has changed a lot during these months of pandemic and quarantine? Consider the case of NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
On March 11, within minutes of Donald Trump’s stumbling, sniffling, error-riddled speech from the Oval Office — and the news that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had tested positive for COVID-19 — a doctor sprinted onto the court of Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, demanding that the Jazz and Thunder halt their game. (The Thunder mascot and dance team, surreally, kept the crowd entertained for half an hour while everyone sorted out what was happening.) It turned out that Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who, just two days earlier, had made light of the coronavirus by touching every microphone in a press conference, had just tested positive. The game was canceled. Within minutes, Silver, in what’s still probably the most decisive move by the leader of an American institution during this crisis, suspended the NBA season. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban praised his understanding of the gravity of the situation. “I trust Adam [Silver]. You know what? It’s really not about basketball or money,” Cuban said. “Literally, if this thing is exploding to the point where all of a sudden players and others have had it, you think about your family. You want to make sure you’re doing this the right way.”
The biological facts of the virus have not evolved in the last two months. But it is becoming increasingly clear that for many people, particularly those with an immediate financial incentive to get economic life started again, risk assessment has. When Silver held a call with NBA owners and executives last week about the possible resumption of the season, he explicitly said that if a player testing positive meant that that the season would be suspended (which is to say, if such a scenario was taken exactly as seriously as it was in March), “we probably shouldn’t go down this path.” The implication was clear: If a player gets sick this time around, the NBA shouldn’t call it quits. Maybe it was about basketball and money, Mark.
Social distancing and masks have made it safer to go out than it was two months ago, at least in some parts of the country. But it is still pretty far from safe, and it’s definitely not anything resembling “normal.” Yet people are taking the plunge anyway, as if the virus itself will be so scared by our consumerism that it will cease to be a threat. If this is the attitude America is going to adopt, who can blame Silver for no longer letting one positive test shut down his league?
When you break down the American sports leagues’ plans to come back, that simple fact — that it’s not much safer out there, but states are opening up anyway — seems to be at the core. The NBA’s first move toward any loosening of restrictions was to allow teams to open their practice facilities in states that reopened their gyms; baseball’s initial forward movement involved plans to play in the few states which the governors had “reopened.” Many feared that the plans of Governors Brian Kemp in Georgia, Ron DeSantis in Florida, and Jared Polis in Colorado, among others, would lull people into a sense of complacency and lead to a spike in cases. It remains to be seen whether that spike will happen — or if we’ll even get straightforward reporting if it does.
The U.S. isn’t the first place around the coronavirus-ravaged world to bring back sports. The German soccer league Bundesliga returned last weekend, and the Korean Baseball League has been playing for a few weeks now. The difference is that those leagues play in countries that have handled the pandemic light-years better than we have. That disparity didn’t stop NASCAR and golf from putting on events this weekend or other American sports from pushing forward.
And at a certain level, can you blame them? When the governor of New York, the hardest hit state in the country, is saying the state will work with sports leagues to return, and the governor of California pronounces that fan-less pro sports could return in June, well, that’s just about all the cover the leagues need. The safety plan put forward by Major League Baseball in a mammoth memo is impressively granular in its detail. But it may not guarantee everyone’s safety; older coaches, support staff, and immune-compromised players will be particularly at risk. (MLB also has a steep mountain to climb selling the plan to the players union.) But if the majority of states and lawmakers are going full-speed ahead, or at least half-speed ahead, why wouldn’t leagues do the same? If Georgia is opening its freaking Crunch gyms, it doesn’t seem all that insane to try to play some basketball.
Here’s the thing, though: It might still be insane, because we’re all sort of walking around in the dark here. The national strategy appears to have evolved into a Sweden-but-cross-your-fingers non-plan, and it’s still too early in the reopening to discern the effects in states like Georgia, Florida, and Colorado. On Sunday evening, John Oliver argued that it’s too soon for sports to come back. He may very well be right! But it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that sports leagues are listening to governors, their bottom line, and, yes, Donald Trump, before they’re listening to John Oliver — or, for that matter, the growing number of sportswriters who are putting their own already-endangered livelihoods at risk by pointing out all the potential problems. The most ethical, moral thing might be to hold off until things are entirely safe. But no one knows when that’s going to be — it could be years, and no sports league, not even the NFL, could afford not to play for years. And if you are looking for sports, or any business, to be your moral and ethical guide to anything, it’s fair to say you are going to find yourself constantly disappointed. Those involved in sports, from the executives in the the professional leagues to university athletic directors and school presidents (who, someone down here in Athens joked with me this weekend, would put scared 150-pound, pimple-faced freshmen in football uniforms and throw them on the field if it meant they could get their television money this fall), are not going to maintain a higher moral standard than the politicians in charge. Maybe they should. But c’mon.
Which means that this may come down to us, the fans. For all the talk about sports being an institution of national unity during tumultuous times — which is the way many people who work in sports frame things — most fans are plenty skeptical of that argument. But even if they’re not rallying around the flag, they might want to rally around the tailgate. Anyone with even a casual interest in sports is desperate for them right now; Andrew Cuomo even said he wants to watch the Bills. But the question over the trade-off between safety and entertainment isn’t one limited to the leagues and the politicians — it’s how the public answers.
The Bundesliga has already seen positive cases and breaking of quarantine protocols. But the return of the league, perhaps inevitably, led to record ratings over the weekend. If people show that they will watch, that they will overlook potential public-health scares so they can have their sports, then sports will absolutely return. Should sports leagues and politicians be held to a higher standard than this in the middle of a public-health crisis? Sure! But who are we trying to kid here? Look around. This country is deciding that it’s reopening for business, whether it’s necessarily a good idea or not. Sports is going along because it was always going to: There’s too much money at stake for it to hang back. Maybe a player’s going to test positive; maybe several will. But it’s not going to shut down for one guy, not this time.
So that’s the question we need to ask ourselves: Are we okay with that? The NFL provides some clues to the answer. More and more evidence has piled up indicating that playing football is one of the worst things a person can do to their brain, that it is nearly impossible to play tackle football and avoid some sort of brain injury, minor or major. It’s a terrifyingly violent sport. Yet this has not stopped people from watching football. Quite the contrary, football ratings just keep going up, almost every year. The evidence is overwhelming: Not enough people care enough to stop watching. We can tsk-tsk sports leagues and university presidents for rushing back when the national situation doesn’t seem safe enough to warrant it. But at the end of the day, we’ll watch. We always do.
It is very possible that the most influential person in American sports in the year 2020 has been Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who was the first to begin opening his state, leading other politicians and sports executives to feel more comfortable slowly peeking back out from under the bed. Was he right? It may not matter. If there is a massive spike in infections in the next months, we might all go back into shutdown mode. But if we are comfortable with the slowly decreasing — but not plummeting — number of cases and deaths, enough for the moderate reopening we’re currently seeing, we’ll be comfortable with sports coming back, even without fans in the stands. There’s a big risk. But that’s not stopping the states, and it won’t stop sports, either. We as fans could probably all do something about it. But we won’t. We never do.