President Trump’s message to sports commissioners during Saturday’s noon conference call emphasized the importance of getting the games up and running again, “sooner rather than later.”
That’s what every sports fan wants to hear, too.
But making that a reality in the world of charter flights, locker rooms, arenas and stadiums is a daunting task — one that could force each commissioner to walk a very shaky line between putting on a show and putting the public’s health at risk.
This isn’t to say that Trump, or the federal government as a whole, is going to give the green light to sports leagues to operate in unsafe working conditions. The question it raises, however, is this: Can anyone really be that sure that the coronavirus pandemic can be contained in time for live sporting events to resume this summer?
Right now, nobody on the planet is capable of providing that answer with 100% accuracy. Me personally, I’d take the over, based on the simple fact that we’ve been told, on a daily basis, that even the parts of the United States that are furthest along the curve haven’t reached the peak yet — and most are weeks away, if not months.
But that’s only my opinion, based on listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, just like everyone else. Or watching Gov. Cuomo’s slide presentations, which tend to be both informative and inspiring.
As for the people who run this nation’s sports leagues, they’re left to take their cues from those same experts, and specifically the CDC, whose social-distancing mandate against groups of 50 or more people gathering led MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to postpone the start of his regular season indefinitely.
Since then, Manfred has publicly stated a best-case scenario of kicking off another spring training in mid-May with a possible June target for Opening Day. He also has stressed that none of that will take place without the CDC’s authorization, and that makes us wonder just how Trump’s optimism from Saturday’s call factors into this return-to-normalcy equation for every league.
“They want to get back,” Trump said. “They’ve got to get back. They can’t do this. Their sports weren’t designed for it. The whole concept of our nation wasn’t designed for it. We’re going to have to get back. We want to get back soon, very soon.”
The president isn’t wrong on that front. Everyone is way beyond starving for his or her favorite sport — or any sport, for that matter — and we’ve been mining for any positive nugget we can find. There just hasn’t been much.
MLB has talked about radical changes to accommodate a truncated schedule — regular doubleheaders, bigger rosters, expanded playoff formats, a December World Series. Anything just to see players back on the field again.
The NBA reportedly has discussed having a postseason tournament based in Las Vegas, where they’d try to maintain a coronavirus-free bubble of activity.
The commissioners are going to make every effort to stretch their rules in ways that have never been tried before. That includes playing in empty ballparks or arenas, which more and more feels like a given. It just seems impossible to pack people side-by-side again without a COVID-19 vaccine, and even the fast-tracked estimations project that to happen no sooner than early 2021.
Trump didn’t proceed quite as cautiously Saturday in calling for full stadiums again this year. That sounds aggressive based on what we’re currently dealing with — barring any major breakthroughs.
“Whenever we're ready,” Trump said. “I mean, as soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back too, you know. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful fresh air.
“I can't tell you a date, but I think it's going to be sooner rather than later.”
When a reporter asked if it would be August, Trump replied that he was not committed to any particular timeline. But he did add that the Republican National Convention, which is scheduled for Aug. 24-27 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina — the 19,077-seat home of the NBA’s Hornets — remains a go and that there are no contingency plans in the works.
“We think by the end of August, we’ll be in good shape,” Trump said.
It is far easier to control a specific audience for an event like that, over four days, than it would be for an MLB season, even one with a greatly reduced schedule of only 100 regular-season games plus playoffs over five months. But that still feels overly ambitious now as the COVID-19 numbers continue to skyrocket across the country.
Trump maintained Saturday that social distancing can’t go on forever, that fans need to be allowed back in their seats. “Otherwise,'' he said, "that means your stadium is half the size of what it was a month ago.”
But going forward, it’s not the size of the ballparks that everyone is worried about. It’s about playing sports — or just watching them again — without getting sick, and the pressure of making the right call when it’s the right time.