There’s a candidate for phrase of the year: Shaken but not deterred.
Sankey wasn’t speaking for all sports, but he could have been. As the coronavirus keeps plundering our bodies and spirit, it feels as if sports have reached a point of no return. They won’t quit on their own, not without a municipal directive. Perhaps they think they can’t stop, considering how money influences risk assessment. “Shaken but not deterred” also means, “This is bad, but we won’t turn back.”
During normal times, there is little more inspiring than watching athletes ratchet up the determination. Right now, however, it feels desperate and dangerous. It’s understandable, too — and expected. Over the past few months, there have been just enough examples of leagues showing the resolve and creativity to survive, to complete seasons and crown champions. In professional and major college athletics, significant television revenue rewards such persistence. So college football is going to forge ahead. The NFL is even more of a freight train.
After canceling the NCAA tournament in March, college basketball must manufacture a full 2020-21 season. Even though the NBA and NHL found a way to finish their seasons safely about five minutes ago, those leagues will be back soon, hoping to salvage what they can of their new seasons rather than bide their time until a vaccine emerges or simply wait for the current, petrifying wave to slow down.
Sankey admitted to being “troubled” by the outbreaks in the SEC. The pandemic is in a ferocious groove now, punishing the country with record numbers of cases each day and raising the death total to more than 241,000 Americans. It’s no wonder the SEC is having trouble, no wonder Maryland won’t be able to play Ohio State in the Big Ten, no wonder California can’t get its season started in the Pac-12. The college basketball season is supposed to begin in less than two weeks, but Miami and Stetson already called off a game, and two other programs, Seton Hall and Minnesota, announced they were pausing activities. The Ivy League took the extraordinary — or sensible — step of calling off all winter sports Thursday.
“What America has to understand is that we are about to enter covid hell,” said Michael T. Osterholm, an adviser to President-elect Joe Biden and the director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, during a CNBC interview. “It is happening.”
We may be en route to hell, but the International Olympic Committee expressed confidence this week that some fans would be allowed at the rescheduled Olympics in July. The sports world remains a utopia of optimism and tunnel vision.
Of course, hope means nothing to this coronavirus. It can be defeated only by science, and for now, the best defense is diligence about wearing masks, social distancing and following health protocols. Sports have set a decent example. But as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said recently, “Ninety percent [compliance] is not good enough in this environment.” And it’s a tall order to ask large groups of people to grade out better than 90 percent at anything.
It was a worthwhile reset for most major sports to take a break from mid-March to late July. They learned plenty about the virus, and time helped the NBA, WNBA and NHL develop bubble concepts to complete their seasons. Other enterprises figured out some best practices, too.
But since then, you have seen the problems with waiting. The nation has neither developed a uniform strategy nor agreed to adhere to the simplest measures for people to protect each other. Now the virus is out of control.
For leagues determined to play, it seems best not to delay. In hindsight, the Big Ten and Pac-12 should have tried to stay on schedule instead of initially opting to delay until the new year, only to change their minds to keep up with their peers. Now they’re late to the party and experiencing the same issues as programs that started in September. The difference is they’re at a competitive disadvantage trying to cram in their seasons before the scheduled start of the College Football Playoff.
Consider what the NBA is doing, rushing back to play by Christmas after just finishing a season that lasted into October. Why not wait and hold out hope for a vaccine? The NBA pondered that approach, but it wasn’t a television ratings hit to stage a summer playoff that spilled into the start of the NFL season. With the Olympics looming next summer, the NBA is motivated to get back to a more traditional timeline.
And the league would rather be desperate in the moment than desperate down the road. Again, it’s understandable. But if this period winds up being pandemic hell, how do you play three basketball games a week, without a bubble, and prevent the season from becoming a nightmare of positive cases and postponements?
In introducing the bubble concept, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in June, “My ultimate conclusion is that we can’t outrun the virus and that this is what we’re going to be living with for the foreseeable future.” So he created a force field. And it worked. But it would be imprudent (if not impossible) to stage an entire 72-game regular season and playoffs in that environment.
Instead, the NBA will do the exact thing that has left every other sport and league, well, troubled. It will ask players, coaches and team personnel to be extraordinarily disciplined, and they will do their best, and the cases will persist.
Even though we’re used to this by now, it’s never going to feel normal. Or right. Or safe and manageable. It just isn’t. And while die-hard sports fans are relieved to have their games, this reality does inhibit some of the joy of watching.
It seems most have compartmentalized the moral dilemma. But it’s a queasy kind of fun, isn’t it? Just not queasy enough to want it to end.
Everyone is shaken but not deterred.
Everyone is troubled.