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There is no sign of professional sports returning anytime soon, but that hasn’t stopped trial-balloon season from proceeding in full swing.
Reports from The Associated Press and ESPN have said that Major League Baseball is working on a plan to cram all of its teams into the state of Arizona as early as next month, where its season could be conducted in empty stadiums and players and staff would essentially be isolated in a big baseball bubble.
The National Basketball Association is reported to be basing its own return-to-play strategy on the procurement of rapid-result coronavirus tests that would ensure anyone in an arena would not be unwittingly spreading the dangerous illness.
In the National Hockey League, there has been speculation about neutral-site tournaments of a sort, with large numbers of teams housed in places like Saskatchewan and North Dakota so that games could be played while minimizing travel and limiting the scope of exposure.
Over in Europe, the big soccer leagues are said to be eyeing similar ideas, using a few empty stadiums and hotels to theoretically create coronavirus-free zones that players and staff would never leave.
That these ideas are even being floated at all is evidence of how much the world has changed in a few weeks. Our domestic leagues were still rolling along less than a month ago, hopeful that the coronavirus would have a mild impact on our shores. Even as sports were put on pause, the most radical ideas being discussed were limited to fans being barred from stadiums. But as it has quickly become clear that many cities will likely be dealing with outbreaks through the spring months, and as some have barred public gatherings for several weeks, suddenly no idea to save sports this season has become too crazy. If this level of innovation keeps up, we will soon be seeing someone propose awarding the Stanley Cup to the team that wins a skills contest, which each franchise holding one in the safety of their home arena.
Rarely have I ever been so hopeful to be proven wrong
The urgency to come up with a solution to the lack of sports, even if it involves scenarios that would have been considered bananas a month ago, is understandable. There is the obvious money at stake for owners and players, even if both sides are better insulated financially than countless workers in other industries that have been devastated by the pandemic. There are also the many other businesses with a vested interest in new games: broadcasters, betting houses, and all kinds of media outlets, including this one, that need actual events to talk and write about. My ranking of the Greatest Canadian Sports Heroes Whose Last Name Starts with ‘C’ is coming along nicely, thank you, but the alphabet is only so long.
There is also the idea that sports would be a welcome distraction, a soothing balm to a lot of people struggling to deal with lockdowns and isolation. Which is fair enough: Maple Leafs fans never knew how much they missed the collective freakout over another Freddie Andersen clunker until one hadn’t happened for a month.
But the problem with any of the return-to-play scenarios being floated is that it is clear they are being considered for a timeline that would seriously outpace the return to normalcy that is expected for our wider society. The only reason to take such dramatic steps as pitting the Arizona Blue Jays against the Arizona Yankees or the Saskatoon Jets against the Saskatoon Flames would be an admission that it would be unsafe to hold the games as normal. That is, the coronavirus situation would still be dangerous enough throughout the continent that leagues would only operate under extreme measures to counteract it.
And if that’s the case, then everyone involved — from players to staff to officials to broadcast crews — would be taking on some degree of elevated risk just to make games happen. How much of a risk? That will depend on the public-health picture in the coming months, but even the most aggressive virus-containment plan for any league is going to have more risk than not staging games at all. If offices and stores are still empty and we are all still being told to stay six feet away from anyone who doesn’t share your home, how could any league honestly consider running a laboratory experiment where hundreds of players and staff co-mingle while trying to seal off the outside world?
While admitting that sportswriting has been known to overly deploy the gladiator analogy from time to time, in this case it would be a little too on the nose. Are we really going to ask athletes to leave the relative safety of their homes because we would like to be entertained? Are we going to ask the same of the timekeepers and the equipment managers, the trainers and the person who runs the team’s cheeky social-media account? Are we going to ask them to be an essential service?
It should be a standard line in any column right about now, but speculating about anything beyond tomorrow is fraught. Maybe the coming weeks will be full of good news, and this will end up looking like unwarranted hand-wringing. In that case, hooray.
Rarely have I ever been so hopeful to be proven wrong.
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