Dieter Kurtenbach: We’re all asking the wrong question about the return of sports

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — When will sports resume? Everyone has a thought. The North American professional sports leagues are hoping for late May, early June. Per ESPN, President Trump told commissioners Saturday that he hopes leagues can resume — with fans in the stands — in August or September.

Yes, it’s his hope that the NFL starts, with fans in the stands, on time.

California Governor Gavin Newsom disagrees. “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state,” he said Saturday.

It’s fair to wonder and project, when normal — or whatever normal will be after this pandemic — will return, but the truth is that no one — not even the world’s best experts — can reasonably put a date when we’ll be able to go to our favorite restaurant, travel to see love ones without having to go into quarantine, or cheer on our favorite teams in person or even on TV once again.

That’s because the pressing question when it comes to returning to normal isn’t “when?”

It’s “how?”

Until there is a vaccine, COVID-19 will be a threat. Right now, because it is a novel virus, humans have no antibodies, the world of medicine has no uniform treatment plans, and a safe, effective vaccine is a year away.

Social distancing and wearing masks when in public are currently our only proven means for fighting back and saving lives.

And until we no longer have to socially distance, it’s antithetical to expect that we can cram 250 people into a venue, much less 20,000 or 75,000.

Closed-door games — even at a single venue — are inherently problematic. No matter how hard leagues might try, they won’t be able to fully quarantine every essential person for the operation, and, as we learned with the NBA, one positive test can — for good reason — shut the whole thing down.

The only surefire way to return to the norm of teams traveling all over the country to play in front of sold-out arenas is a vaccine.

Still, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, there might be some relaxation of social distancing in the weeks and months to come.

“If we get to the part of the curve… when it goes down to essentially no new cases, no new deaths, I think it makes sense that you’re going to relax social distancing,” he said in a White House press conference earlier this week.

But if social distancing is done correctly — if the curve is “flattened” — then that portion of the curve is, inherently, further away.

In California, according to the University of Washington projections, that could be in July.

But no two states are on the same timeline. Some cities, like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Detroit, are being hit harder than others, and the virus started spreading in communities at different times, too. Right now, the logistics of a normal schedule are nearly impossible to overcome for leagues that have teams from coast-to-coast.

And because there was no national lock-down — every state gets to call its own shot — it’s ridiculous to think that there will be a single day where the country “re-opens”.

No, returning to normal will also have to be a gradual process. Sports and other large gatherings needed to be the first things shut down and, inherently, they should be the last thing to re-open.

It’s easy to see how Newsom is pessimistic about the fall. Relaxing social distancing, enough as to make it acceptable to fill a stadium, too early is a recipe for creating a second wave of infections. We’re seeing this in China, where movie theaters have been closed again and hopes of re-starting the national basketball league have been put on hold.

So how will sports resume?

“The one thing that we hopefully will have in place (if we are to see a second wave) — and I believe we will have in place — is a much more robust system to be able to identify someone that’s infected, isolate them, and then do contact tracing,” Fauci said. “If you have a really good program of containment, that prevents you from ever having to get to mitigation (social distancing)… The ultimate solution to a virus that might keep coming back is a vaccine.”

So without a vaccine, we’re going to need a lot of T and T: treatment and testing.

If there is a treatment plan that could obliterate COVID-19’s hospitalization and death rate, putting them in line with, say, the seasonal flu, that could facilitate a swifter return to normalcy.

Near-free and overwhelmingly accessible and copious testing with near-instant results — the kind we do not have in the United States right now — could take us back to something resembling normal, too.

But we’re all going to be wearing masks and watching quarantined NBA players play H-O-R-S-E and video games while we wait.

The wait is all we can do, for now.

Without a breakthrough, it’s hard to see a circumstance where the Warriors play again this season. The Sharks, too. NBA and NHL playoffs seem far fetched at the moment as well. If they happen, they’ll be closed-door events, perhaps in one venue.

The Major League Baseball season seems destined to be played behind closed doors, too — at least in San Francisco and Oakland. That’s if they don’t play an entire season in Arizona and Florida.

And given Newsom’s comments Saturday, September games at Levi’s Stadium will be even more empty than usual. Pandemic is a better excuse than “it’s too hot.”

The games will resume. I can guarantee that. But this reality TV show won’t have a live studio audience for a while.

That stinks, but we have to remember that around the world, professional sports leagues were not aggressive enough in shutting down. It’s presumptuous to say there was malicious intent on behalf of the teams and leagues, but it’s impossible to say that those games didn’t contribute to the devastation this virus has wrought. Sports can’t make the same mistake twice.

In Northern Italy, a Champions League match between Atlanta and Valencia on Feb. 19 in Milan is being called “Game Zero” for the COVID-19 outbreak in that region. The Warriors played the Clippers despite the city of San Francisco’s request that they re-schedule or cancel the contest. Instead, they put some 8.5 by 11 sheets of paper on the doors of Chase Center asking people not to enter if they recently had flu-like symptoms or had traveled to China, Italy, South Korea, or Iran. The NHL, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer were planning to ride it out — to keep playing games and making money — until the NBA was forced to shut down because of Rudy Gobert’s positive test.

It’s worth noting that even after Gobert’s test, the NBA continued to play games that night and planned on tipping off a late Pelicans-Kings game in Sacramento. New Orleans players refused to take the floor and the game was canceled.

Now that we’re heading towards the other side of the curve, I’d hope the lesson was learned and the leagues will err on the side of caution, not capital. And I’d hope that governments will stop all those who make the wrong decision.

I’m not holding my breath, but, again, we can hope.


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