Jim Souhan: Sports world’s reaction paints grim image to severity of situation

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Want to know how serious the pandemic is?

Use sport as the canary in the coal mine.

If you listen to the wrong politician or watch the wrong station, you might have been deceived about the nature and danger of the coronavirus.

If you want a glimpse of reality, look to the sports world, where those in charge have little choice but to make nonpartisan decisions in real time.

Major sports are billion-dollar businesses owned by billionaires. They almost all employ excellent medical teams. Their businesses rely on long-term planning and scheduling, including reservations of stadiums and arenas. They increasingly value computer modeling and analytics. They must work with powerful unions in the form of players associations.

Whatever their political leanings, they can’t lie about the effects of the virus to protect a party or politician. Better put, they can’t lie without looking foolish or criminal in the eyes of their employees and customers, and damaging their reputations and future earnings.

They also gain no advantage by projecting worst-case possibilities.

So when ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said this past week that he would be “shocked” if there is an NCAA or NFL season this fall, and when the Twins’ bosses said there may not be a 2020 baseball season, note the sources.

College football has made Herbstreit rich and famous. He loves the game and benefits from its popularity. He has no incentive to cast doubt on the possibility that there will be a season.

Here’s what Herbstreit said: “I’ll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football,” he said. “I’ll be so surprised if that happens. Just because from what I understand, people that I listen to, you’re 12 to 18 months from a vaccine. I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball.

“Next thing you know you got a locker room full of guys that are sick. And that’s on your watch? I wouldn’t want to have that. As much as I hate to say it, I think we’re scratching the surface of where this thing’s going to go.”

Also last week, Twins President Dave St. Peter said: “Baseball will return. Our job is to be ready for that, assuming it happens. But do we know that’s going to happen (in 2020)? No, we don’t.”

Plenty of politicians and news organizations have responsibly sounded the alarm about a crisis that has New York hospitals building makeshift morgues and deciding which patients should receive their limited medical supplies. Their messages don’t always reach the masses.

What’s different in sport management is that it is one step removed from partisan posturing, and from partisan suspicion. So when sports owners shut down their leagues, risking massive financial losses, you should pay attention.

When owners received information from their medical people about the virus, the sports world stopped.

To resume their seasons, the NHL and NBA would have to fly players back from Europe, hold training camps, then schedule a championship tournament that would be abbreviated and cheapened, or push back next season. And that’s if the virus is eradicated within a few months, with little or no chance of returning.

To play a football season requires at least a month of practice and conditioning. The NFL is already pushing its luck by trying a 17-game regular season. A 17-game regular season with players unprepared for full contact could be disastrous.

Baseball faces a different challenge. While other sports sell excitement and the allure of the big game, baseball’s charm and history is rooted in its long regular season.

It’s not a sport suited to short tournaments, or winter weather, and preparing a starting pitcher for a season can require at least a month.

If the NHL and NBA can’t restart seasons by June, would baseball be able to schedule any kind of representative regular season?

Nobody who runs a sport wants to miss a game, much less a season. For those having difficulty discerning the truth about our national tragedy, sports figures contemplating an indefinite shutdown should tell you all you need to know.


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