Michael Cunningham: Some plans for return of sports more realistic than others

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ATLANTA — My search for optimism about sports coming back in the U.S. led me to take a look at Germany. That country’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, wants to return to play by the end of May with no spectators in stadiums. The country’s sports ministers approved the plan and hoped to get the go-ahead from chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday.

Instead, Merkel announced that a decision on when games might resume won’t be made until Wednesday.

“It is absolutely necessary that we remain disciplined and stick to health guidelines,” Merkel said.

As of Friday, Germany had reported about 163,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 6,600 deaths. In the U.S., more than one million people were infected and 64,000 had died. The U.S. lags well behind Germany’s COVID-19 testing capacity on a per-capita basis.

If even Germany isn’t ready to say when it will have games again, when can we expect them to come back in the U.S.?

The human cost is by far the worst part of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The uncertainty also is taxing. No one knows when things will get back to normal or what “normal” will look like, and that includes the relatively trivial world of sports.

Sports leagues, facing financial pressures, want to restart their seasons (basketball, soccer and hockey) or begin on time (football). Some players, such as Lakers star LeBron James, have publicly said they are ready to resume play as soon as it’s safe. There will be a consumer market for games in whatever format they eventually take.

But desires don’t always square with reality. I’d also like to see sports return once it’s safe for participants and support staff. There’s an existential element to that. What is a sportswriter without sports?

I miss the games. I don’t blame the leagues for holding out hope they can play this year. If it’s safe and feasible to play games, let’s have them, even if only for television. But I balance that optimism with realism.

Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne says he’s planning on fall sports being played. But what are those plans worth when Byrne also says he’s relying on the advice of health experts? Dallas Mavericks franchise owner Mark Cuban says he’s “cautiously optimistic” the NBA can resume play this year with no fans at games. Meanwhile, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver cautions that the league needs more information before it can decide.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, has said the virus would determine when restrictions can be lifted. Fauci recently told the New York Times that a return to normal for sports must happen “gradually and carefully.” He said it’s crucial that everyone has access to tests that return quick results.

“If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season,’ ” Fauci told The Times.

That’s no fun to hear. It doesn’t mean sports leagues will stop exploring contingencies to play as many games as possible under certain conditions. Some of those plans sound better than others.

The NBA and MLB are considering so-called bubble plans in which all games are played at a central location. Teams and essential support personnel would be isolated and tested regularly. There would be no spectators at games.

ESPN has reported that the NBA is looking at Las Vegas and Orlando’s Walt Disney World as possible locations. MLB has considered playing games in the Phoenix area, which includes the Diamondbacks’ stadium as well as several spring training sites. Those bubble plans come with some obvious logistical challenges.

Is it possible to successfully isolate the 1,000-plus people necessary to stage the games? That number includes the players and coaches plus game-day staff and support personnel. Would any of those people’s family members be allowed inside the bubble and, if not, would participants still agree to be isolated?

What about the older people who are part of team staffs? There are also the hotel employees and other workers inside the bubble. The leagues always say the safety of everyone involved is their main consideration, but those lower-paid workers have less incentive to agree to isolation and less power to negotiate their working conditions.

The one-site bubble plan is more realistic than another that USA Today reported is being considered by MLB. The report said MLB officials want to begin a 100-game season in July with teams playing at their own ballparks and no isolation for participants. The plan also includes realigned divisions based on geography, according to USA Today, to reduce travel demands.

That detail seems unimportant when the entire plan is so unworkable. The plan would require widespread testing and approval from government officials in each team’s city. USA Today reports that MLB officials are “cautiously optimistic” the plan can happen, making it the worst example of hope crashing against reality.

Football is relatively fortunate that it can stay clear of these reopen debates. The pandemic interrupted play for basketball, baseball and hockey. Football has time on its side, albeit less so for college than the NFL.

A handful of football schools, including the University of Georgia, have announced plans to gradually reopen campuses this summer and hold in-person classes during the fall. College football officials say that’s necessary before games can be played. However, the announcements about campuses reopening come with the usual caveats that make it too soon to count on fall football.

The NFL is set to release its 2020 schedule within the next week. The first regular-season game is scheduled for Sept. 10. That’s more of a goal than a plan at this point. NFL executive Troy Vincent told the Association Press that the league is considering several alternatives in case a normal schedule isn’t feasible.

There’s the uncertainty again. There may be games this year. No one knows when, where or what they would look like. That’s not ideal after nearly two months without sports but cautious optimism still is better than no hope.


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