MINNEAPOLIS — April will offer the closest thing we’ll get to real sporting events for months. The coming weeks will also bring us the jet fuel of big-time sports: rampant speculation.
The WNBA draft is scheduled for April 17. The NFL draft is scheduled for April 23-25. For at least four days this month, and every day between now and then, we will be blessed with the ability to think, dream, analyze and first-guess the Lynx and Vikings, and every other team in the WNBA and NFL. Then we can second-guess them for years.
From the time COVID-19 became an ever-present threat, I’ve thought of these drafts as welcome distractions from reality.
I wanted to see both drafts proceed, responsibly, with proper social distancing. A draft is nothing more than an overblown conference call, anyway. Why not have a little fun?
Why not? Because the world is changing. Risks are becoming more apparent. A month ago, holding the drafts made sense. More to the point, the drafts seemed an antidote to the lethargy and boredom of our new lives.
But our awareness of what we’re up against has changed, so the leagues’ plans should change, as well.
They can change in a positive way. Let me explain.
About 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As a country we responded by dramatically increasing security at airports and all major public gatherings, and invading other countries.
The tragic math: 3,000 deaths meant changing the way we live, and mobilizing our military.
On Wednesday, deaths in the United States attributed to COVID-19 reached 1,000 in a single day. Given the lack of widespread testing, and that some Americans have died because of the virus without being properly diagnosed, the true number is likely higher.
Medical professionals are warning that COVID-19 could kill 3,000 Americans a day at some point in April.
As many Americans could be dying every day in mid- to late April as died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Holding the drafts under those circumstances would be macabre. And unnecessary.
The WNBA and NFL are in luck. They can do the right thing while benefiting their brands and businesses.
If they postpone the drafts, what would happen?
They’d hold center court in American sports for the foreseeable future.
If the drafts were held as scheduled, we might have a dearth of sports news from the end of April until … late summer? Early fall?
If the drafts were postponed until the virus is contained, American sports media could continue to speculate and produce mock drafts and report on teams’ thinking from now until then. And, whenever the drafts were held, they could become the green flag that restarts the sports world. They could be held in a time of optimism and excitement, instead of becoming an example of obliviousness.
Even without fans in attendance, there is no way you can pull off a televised draft without someone — television technicians come to mind — working within 6 feet of another human.
I don’t have much hope that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will make the right decision. His primary role seems to be as a human shield for criticism of the league and its owners, and he reportedly has told owners he wants the draft to proceed on time.
I do have hope that WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who started her job last July, will wake up. She’s been impressive since her first day, recognizing the importance of marketing the league’s star players and engineering a collective bargaining agreement that, if not for the pandemic, would be bolstering her league’s status in the hierarchy of American sports.
The best leaders don’t merely act on available intelligence. The best leaders see around corners. And what’s around the corner for our country may be so horrific that holding a draft any time in April would look like the worst kind of sporting unawareness.
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