Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports in America, leagues, teams, coaches, players, fans, television executives, media, sports talk show callers, internet message board geniuses and so on have been racking their brains for how to get them to return … safely.
Ideas have been plentiful. Implementation nonexistent. Even attempting to stage an event under heavy restrictions, the way UFC president Dana White tried using a casino on isolated tribal land in California, with no fans and significant precautions, has been met with resistance, criticism and eventual cancellation.
White is a very successful and fearless — to a fault sometimes — businessman, but he didn’t have the credibility to sway opinion and make UFC 249 a reality this weekend.
Now comes someone who most certainly can change minds, a former high school basketball captain (Regis in New York City, 1958) and devoted baseball fan (Washington Nationals) with an opinion rooted in science, unaffected by personal financial gain and not viewed through a political prism.
Hey, Dr. Anthony Fauci, can we play some games soon?
“There’s a way of doing that,” Fauci, America’s point person on the pandemic, said on Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” Show.
This is the single biggest development in the potential return of sports since the pandemic broke.
Fauci’s blessing on a proper plan (whatever it may be) can alleviate local concerns, provide political cover and turn the discussion into how to do this safely rather than just argue about whether anyone should even try.
Fauci agreed with what has emerged from the non-infectious disease experts among us as the most attainable, if still logistically challenging, plan. Specifically: One location for the games. No fans in the stands. Players, coaches, officials and television broadcast crews separated into hotels in a pseudo-bubble until the season is over.
The NBA playoffs from the MGM Grand? The NHL out in population-low but rink-rich North Dakota? MLB at a slew of spring training facilities in and around Phoenix?
Doable, according to Fauci.
“Nobody comes to the stadiums,” Fauci said. “Put [the athletes, coaches, etc.] in big hotels, wherever you want to play. Keep them very well-surveilled, but have them tested like every week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their families and just let them play the season out.”
Officially, the NBA, NHL and MLB remain in a suspended status and will only say that they are considering numerous contingency plans in the hope of getting the games and their businesses back.
“Nothing’s been ruled in,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Nothing’s been ruled out.”
Part of that is because there remain so many unknowns — will testing improve, will treatments improve, will warm weather curb the spread of the virus, etc.?
President Donald Trump has started a task force with numerous sports leaders seeking a way to get the games going again. He complained Tuesday he was tired of watching “baseball games that are 14 years old” on television, the lament of just about every sports fan.
The issue with getting the games back as they are normally staged isn’t up to the president or a league commissioner. Playing games in dozens of different locations leaves things up to the whims of local health officials and politicians, who may be dealing with different levels of outbreak.
It also requires travel and the challenges and expense of keeping so many arenas open.
While using a single location or city with participants isolated from the public as much as possible is a massive undertaking, it seems easier and safer than going back to normal. You’d need only one locale to approve.
Is there the will for such a thing? There hasn’t been yet.
White attempted to stage a fight card this Saturday but was asked to stand down by his broadcast partner, ESPN, when the backlash and concerns became too significant. That was last week. Things can change quickly. White is now pointing to May 9 as the date for UFC 249, trying to fulfill his vow to be the first sport to return. Maybe he pulls it off this time.
What if the country can turn the corner? Does this get increasingly plausible in, say, late June?
Does some place such as Las Vegas welcome the chance for the NBA to overtake the MGM Grand, the nation’s largest hotel with 6,852 rooms (lots of workers) and an arena attached to it, sort of like an extended NCAA subregional?
What if none other than Anthony Fauci is behind it?
Can the NHL do the same? How about baseball? Football — both pro and college — may be impossible under these conditions, but in a time when trusted voices are in short supply, the doctor’s comments were significant.
This is Dr. Fauci, not Dana White, even if they seem to be saying, and hoping to attain, roughly the same thing.
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