March 11th, 2020; a day every sports fan will remember. During the close of a post-game press conference, Jazz star big man Rudy Gobert thought it would be funny to touch every single microphone and recorder in the media room. Days later, he was the first active U.S. pro athlete to be diagnosed with coronavirus, and the NBA suspended its season. The dominoes soon fell, and all of the sports seasons were put on hiatus. NBA was suspended, NHL was suspended, NCAA March Madness was canceled, the NFL Draft became virtual, and the list goes on. The question then was, when would sports come back?
Photo: CNN International, Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)
Fast forward to today, over four months have gone by, and sports have made their coveted return, but how long will they stay? Sports are a pastime and escape for Americans (and global viewers), but the most important aspect is the safety of the players and staff of the professional sports leagues. Without the proper measures and actions taken by league officials, sports would no way have been able to make a 2020 comeback. We have seen innovative measures taken by the leaders of the major sports leagues.
For starters, you have to appreciate and commend the efforts of NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver. Once the NBA season was put on hold, Adam Silver worked tirelessly to create a solution. His idea, to have an isolated tournament to resume the season and have a playoff to name a champion. On June 4th, the NBA Board of Governors approved the resumption of the 2019-2020 season that would take place at Walt Disney World in Florida, thus creating the NBA Bubble. On Episode 15 of “Beers, Business, and Balls”, we sat down with the PA Announcer for the Indiana Pacers and 2019 NBA All-Star game, Tim Sinclair. He just finished up his mandatory quarantine inside the NBA Bubble down in Orlando, where he will be doing PA for the return of basketball for the next few weeks. He said that what the NBA is doing is incredible. The accommodations are great, the staff is very cautious, and the system is working.
Per an NBA press release, “Of the 344 players tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus since test results were last announced on July 20, zero have returned confirmed positive tests.” This is phenomenal news as the bubble system should not cause further cancellation.
Photo: Forbes.com, Inside the NBA Bubble in Orlando, Florida
The same praise should be rewarded to NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman. The NHL’s owners and player’s union announced back in early July, that they had officially approved the resumption plans to complete the 2019-20 season. In addition, they agreed on a new labor agreement that will last through 2026. The season will resume Aug. 1 with an expanded 24-team playoff at two hubs, in Edmonton and Toronto, and will end in Edmonton in early October. The draft is tentatively set to take place Oct. 9 and 10, and a full 2020-21 campaign will begin in December. Per their official press release, “The NHL concluded Phase 3 (formal training camp) of its Return to Play on Saturday with no positive test results for COVID-19 among the 4,256 tests administered to more than 800 Players during the period from July 18-25. During the two-week period of Phase 3, there were a total of two positive tests (both occurred during the period from July 13-17) among the 6,874 total tests. All 24 teams entered the secure zone in Edmonton and Toronto yesterday for the beginning of Phase 4 and each of the 52 members of the 24 teams (Players and Club staff) will be tested on a daily basis. The NHL will continue to provide regular updates on the number of tests administered to Players and the results of those tests. The League will not be providing information on the identity of the Players or Clubs.”.
Again, wonderful news! We can’t also forget about the WNBA bubble in Florida, UFC’s Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, the "MLS is Back" tournament, and NASCAR allowing some fans in the stands. These are all brilliant efforts and concepts, and they seem to be working as well.
On the other hand, what the hell is going on in the MLB and NFL? Baseball was nearly on the brink of not returning, to begin with. It started with the dispute between the owners and the player’s union, regarding the salary expectations and safety of the players. Commissioner Rob Manfred laid down the hammer and decided to proceed with a 60-game season after botched disputes between the two parties.
The season is not even a week old and the first major COVID outbreak has appeared. Nearly 20 members of the Miami Marlins, mostly players, have tested positive in the past few days. This has caused a mini shutdown of its own. The Marlin's first opponent of the year was the Philadelphia Phillies. News broke that many players were scratched from the series, which triggered concerns. Miami had to reschedule their games against the Baltimore Orioles. Some Phillies personnel have also tested positive, which caused their games against the Yankees to be postponed as well. To minimize the disruption of the season, while also containing the outbreak, the MLB has scheduled isolation for both teams for some period of time and moved games around for any team that has been impacted. This incident is far from over, as there is much backlash already brewing. The Nationals took a team vote and do not want to travel to Miami until things clear up. The MLB is picking up the pieces and deciding “what’s next”, but this could have become a terrible crisis management situation. Who’s to say that this won’t happen again? New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, threw out the idea to have all Major League Baseball teams play in isolation in New York State. New York state has one of the lowest infection rates in the United States with a solid testing system in place. He said, “It would be good for the economy, it would be good for the psyche, and it would be good for the nation’s soul”. Maybe Manfred should take him up on that offer.
In the world of Football, the also not-so-loved leader of the league, Roger Goodell, is dealing with issues of his own. Mandatory training camp began July 28th, but the players collectively call out the NFL for lack of any sort of public plan to face COVID-19. The NFL and NFLPA continue to be at odds with one another over protocols pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the NFLPA wants to stick with guidelines recommended by the Joint Committee of medical professionals formed by both entities, the NFL is planning on going forward with more accelerated plans. Earlier this month, several NFL starts created a similar social media response, to let the league know how they are feeling. The players don’t have much leverage in terms of showing up to camp or not until the NFLPA comes to an agreement with the NFL.
The only information that is truly known is the Opt-Out policy. Per the NFL, “Under the amended collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association, agreed to on July 24, players have the choice to opt-out of the 2020 NFL season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If a player wishes to opt-out, he must provide his club with written notification within seven days of the date that the NFL and NFLPA finalize the agreement that includes the terms of such opt-outs. To be designated a voluntary opt-out, a player must be under contract or subject to a tender. The player's contract will toll and all provisions of that contract for the tolled year will be applied the following season; however, he will not receive an accrued season. The player will be eligible for a stipend of $150,000 to be treated as a salary advance against his tolled contract; an undrafted free agent, however, is not eligible for the stipend.”
There is a growing number of players, including an alarmingly amount of Patriots, that are opting out of this season. Big names include Chief’s playoff RB Damien Williams and OL / Doctor Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Giants LT Nate Solder, and defensive cornerstones of the Patriots Patrick Chung and Don’t’a Hightower, just to name a few. The list is actually quite long and can be found here on this COVID Opt-Out Tracker, created by CBS Sports.
It would be such a tease to have all of the sports back for a hot second only to be ripped away shortly after. But as stated before, the safety of the players and personnel come first. Let’s hope and pray that sports are back for good. Soon enough, we will be back paying for overpriced beers in the stands of your favorite stadium or ballpark across the country.