The point is this: Whether it’s religion or sports, providing false hope in the midst of this horrifying coronavirus pandemic serves no one. Even if our elected officials in the highest offices sometimes forget this, sports officials shouldn’t.
Our world, to an alarming degree, is currently based on if-this-then-that contingencies, and if we have learned anything in the past month, it’s that hard-and-fast predictions have no place in the current environment. They’re guesses, some more educated than others, and nothing more. That applies to the most important matters of the moment: the spread of the virus and the number of deaths it causes. But it also applies to when we might see sports again.
Of all the striking quotes in a Washington Post story written by my colleague Adam Kilgore and published over the weekend, one stood out from Ali Khan, who, among other things, is a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. In predicting the return of our pastimes, Khan said: “My crystal ball is not just cloudy. It’s black.”
That’s telling. And sensible.
In some ways, sports were a bellwether in shutting down our society. (Remember: The NBA halted its season before most schools closed their doors and before any local or statewide stay-at-home orders were in place.) Likewise, sports should lead in how we think about opening back up but be a follower in actually doing so.
The reason sports went dark so quickly is the same reason they should return so cautiously: Right now and for the foreseeable future, we must remain at least six feet from one another and not gather in groups exceeding 10. Given those guidelines — orders, actually — it seems logical that throwing 80,000 people shoulder-to-shoulder in a giant Petri dish of a stadium would be among the final aspects of normal life to which we would feel comfortable — and safe — to return.
Monday, the various powers that oversee golf — including the PGA Tour, the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America — announced a proposed schedule that would move the Masters from this week to November, the PGA Championship from May to August, the U.S. Open from June to September, cancels the British Open and includes the possibility that LPGA and PGA Tour events could be held as soon as June.
These are the kind of contingencies — complicated, involving media and sponsorship partnerships — that organizers must plan for regardless of the sport. But the language in which they’re presented is important. In the golf announcement, the most important piece of the joint statement issued by seven governing bodies isn’t the calendar they’re hoping for. It’s the caution with which they hope.
“We remain very mindful of the obstacles ahead,” the first paragraph of the statement concludes, “and each organization will continue to follow the guidance of the leading public health authorities, conducting competitions only if it is safe and responsible to do so.”
In a separate statement in which he announced the “intended dates” for the Masters, Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Fred Ridley said, even before he laid out the possible plans: “We remain very mindful of the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges presented by the Coronavirus around the world. As such, we continue to keep in close contact with local, state and national health authorities to help inform our decisions.”
This is all written in pencil. Pencils come with erasers.
About golf: Among hardcore sports fans, there has been chatter that golf could lead the way to a return, potentially scratching the live-sports-on-TV itch by staging tournaments without fans. What a fix that would be. Plus, the ratings!
Two people with two different golf governing bodies said Monday that, indeed, all options are being explored, but there remain logistical hurdles in getting 156 players, 156 caddies, television camera and tech people, greenskeepers, volunteers and other support personnel to a single site — making sure none is a danger to the next, even if the sport itself doesn’t require the close contact of, say, basketball or football.
That might be feasible. It doesn’t mean, in early April, it’s known to be feasible. This thing is a moving target. Think how much has changed since March 11, when the NBA shut down. That’s not even four weeks ago, but it’s a barely recognizable time. No sports official — even with the guidance of health officials — can say for certain what will be safe in June or August or September.
It was, then, alarming to read last week that Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president and general counsel, said on a conference call with reporters that it was his “expectation” that the season would begin on time and in stadiums with fans.
“We’re looking at a full season,” Pash said. He said owners and team presidents hadn’t discussed what the parameters of a shortened or altered season might look like. “We’re planning on going forward with a regular, complete season,” he added.
And then there was the creative-yet-insane plan, first reported Tuesday by ESPN, being considered by Major League Baseball: isolating all 30 teams in Arizona as early as May, testing all the participants for the virus, allowing players and coaches to travel only to and from the ballpark, prohibiting fans and potentially taking such measures as relying on an electronic strike zone so the home plate umpire didn’t have to get close to the catcher and eliminating mound visits so the catcher doesn’t have to get close to the pitcher.
So it’s fine to put an entire team in a dugout, but the catcher can’t consult with the pitcher? Within hours of the story breaking, MLB issued a statement that — appropriately — downplayed the possibility.
“The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount,” the statement read in part, “and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”
Words matter here, folks. Sports officials are in position to under-promise, which might allow them to over-deliver. That’s not a political strategy. It’s a public-health reality. Let’s not talk brashly about packed arenas before we can safely share the grocery store aisles with a dozen other shoppers. Let’s not talk confidently about 80,000 people filling a stadium before we can foresee 80 people packing a church.