You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to have come to an understanding by now that confirmed cases of coronavirus can erupt anytime, anywhere, from an aircraft carrier in Guam to a prison near Seattle to a pork plant in South Dakota. That randomness haunts the nights of every elected in the country, perhaps save one.
That’s why, in the absence of a vaccine or a concise federal plan, it’s so hard to re-start sports — they are in every major market, all with different conditions and politics, in an industry that demands uniformity.
A fresh outbreak in any metro market this spring, summer or fall threatens to cancel games played even at empty stadiums. It’s also true for college football games at big stadiums in smaller cities, many of which have yet to be hit hard by the virus and have fewer public-health resources.
The frenetic national conversation about when and how to green-light the return of big-time sports in a pandemic took a turn this week — not for the good, but likely for the best.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was quoted in an internal email to city department heads saying that he may recommend “large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events may not be approved in the city for at least one year,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The idea for 2020 of taking out of play Los Angeles, arguably the most significant sports city in the country, illuminates an overlooked consequence in the debate about recovering from a wicked-bad virus: In pro team sports, if one franchise can’t play, there can’t be a legitimate championship season.
No matter what President Trump thinks is good for business, a pro sports league is built on a premise of equal rules, conditions and fairness for all franchises. And since no sports team would ever go against the public safety mandates of a mayor or a governor, a championship season can’t be conducted without all members playing equal games under relatively equal terms.
The inviolate nature of a traditional league operating in every major market of the country is a symbol of order, norms and calm. It’s plain why everyone wants the return. But not under any conditions. Incomplete seasons for Rams or Chargers would make the NFL season a glorified exhibition.
Games can be played without fans. Games can be played without a full season. Games can be played at neutral sites. But no games by the Rams, 12 by the Seahawks, seven by the Chiefs and five by the Packers? No.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom followed up Garcetti’s thoughts Tuesday with a more specific proposal, announcing a list of six conditions that had to be met before sports and other large gatherings are allowed in his state:
- The ability to monitor and protect communities through testing, contact tracing, isolating, and supporting those who are positive or exposed;
- The ability to prevent infection in people who are at risk for more severe COVID-19;
- The ability of the hospital and health systems to handle surges;
- The ability to develop therapeutics to meet the demand;
- The ability for businesses, schools, and child care facilities to support physical distancing; and
- The ability to determine when to re-institute certain measures, such as the stay-at-home orders, if necessary.
Those requirements, the first of their kind in the absence of federal leadership, start to explain what the California world needs to look like in order to green-light sports with fans. It is a very high bar.
“It’s difficult to imagine us getting together in the thousands anytime soon, so I think we should be prepared for that this year,” Newsom told CNN Wednesday night. “I think we all have never wanted science to work so quickly. But until there’s either a vaccine, some sort of pharmaceutical intervention, or herd immunity, the science is the science.
“Public health officials have made very clear we have miles and miles to walk before we can be back in those environments.”
One of those public health officials, the ubiquitous Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the White House task force, nevertheless offered up a little hope Wednesday. In a Snapchat interview, he sounded surprisingly cavalier about the prospects of quarantining and testing players so that they can play partial seasons.
“There’s a way of doing that,” he said. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put (players and other personnel) in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well-surveilled, have them tested like every week, and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family. And just let them play the season out. If you could get on television, Major League Baseball, to start July 4 (even if) nobody comes to the stadium — you just, you do it.”
Easy for Fauci to say. He’s not in charge of securing and disinfecting personnel, sites and transportation on a daily basis for, in the case of baseball, 4½ months. Nor will he have to deal with the pregnant Mrs. Mike Trout.
Her husband, the best player in baseball, had something to say about that to Mike Tirico of NBC Sports Network.
“Being quarantined in a city . . . it would be difficult for some guys,” he said. “What are you gonna do with family members? My wife is pregnant. What am I gonna do when she goes into labor? Am I going to have to quarantine for two weeks after I come back? Because obviously I can’t miss that birth of our first child.
“There’s a lot of red flags, a lot of questions. Obviously, we would have to agree on it as players. But I think the mentality is we want to get back as soon as we can, but obviously it’s gotta be realistic. We can’t be sitting in a hotel room, just going from the field to the hotel room and not being able to do anything. I think that’s pretty crazy.”
“Pretty crazy” is a phrase that covers a lot of ground these days. In the absence of a vaccine as well as effective national testing, there’s no need to add to the craziness by re-inflating sports seasons threatened almost daily with deflation.