Major League Baseball is going to travel from city to city. The players, coaches and supporting members of the NBA and WNBA are living their lives as bubble boys and girls. The NHL said no thanks to America’s ever-growing case numbers and took business north of the border to Canada. And who knows what the NFL plan will look like by the time football season comes around.
Individual sports such as golf, auto racing and combat sports have been able to mostly manage the spread of the coronavirus since returning to action this summer, but as America’s professional leagues prepare for returns, there really isn’t a way to predict how things will go in regard to team sports in America (although if Major League Soccer’s virus-filled return to play is used as an early measuring stick, the forecast is gloomy at best).
Testing is being ramped up wildly — allegedly once every day or two for most leagues as dozens of players in both the MLB and NBA have recorded positive tests, both symptomatic and asymptomatic, ahead of and during training camps before the sports’ late starts and returns.
The obstacles professional leagues have to get past in order to complete their seasons are going to provide a treacherous path, whether those paths allow spectators or not. It seems as though infected players will be treated similarly to injured players — held out of action while their team carries on — although ensuring the health of those players’ teammates and opponents could put leagues in sticky situations that could involve more delays or, even further, ultimate cancellation.
The likelihood of at least one league having to halt play again probably is greater than any of us would like to imagine. ESPN baseball reporter Buster Olney claimed earlier this month he felt there was “a 0 percent” chance that the baseball season is played until completion. At the college level, major conferences such as the Big Ten and Pac 12 already are making preemptive moves to say goodbye to the behemoth that is college football, eliminating nonconference slates last week.
With so much skepticism about big-time athletics being achievable in the foreseeable future, what does that say about the state of the local sports scene? I don’t think it bodes well.
I’m no stranger to the reactions and opinions being floated on social media on the matter. Somewhat to my surprise, the machismo of sport has tinted the vision on many. The argument of lower transmission rates and fatalities in high school-aged kids has been the go-to argument on why prep sports should continue, but I have to ask: Why is that a good idea when we see everything going on around us?
If professional leagues, which have an infinitely greater amount of resources than any high school or small college, are going to struggle to continue their play, what does that say for schools that aren’t going to have the tests and resources to keep the risk of spread reduced? At this level, student-athletes aren’t going to be tested — and given their test results — before each practice or game or even each school day, for that matter.
As we saw in Lake Zurich, where an outbreak through the school likely led to the drastic adjustments the state made last week in its Return To Play Guidelines, this thing spreads quickly. Once inter-scholastic competition begins, that spread goes from school to school, community to community, at an accelerated rate.
I’ve seen the discussions on how the virus isn’t as lethal for kids and teens, but there are more issues to contemplate than fatality rates for the kids involved. We still don’t know what kind of long-term effects the coronavirus has. Transmission from kids to their family members is going to happen. Are we willing to put Grandma at risk to play football?
Some modern countries around the globe, such as Canada, New Zealand and Germany, have seen their curves trend significantly downward, but the United States continues to see the curve rise. That’s not a matter of opinion, political or apolitical; it’s just a fact. When school and its ensuing activities were canceled in March, we were facing a fraction of the cases we are today. What makes now a better time than the spring, when we’re worse off now than we were then?
I understand it’s frustrating to not know what’s going to happen, and even more frustrating to consider we might lose another season of sports, but wanting something doesn’t mean we should have it. As someone whose livelihood comes through these sports, of course I want to see our kids back in action. I want them to be able to get back to normalcy. But I also realize at this moment, it’s foolish to guarantee that will come by the end of August.
The IHSA deferred future decisions to high powers in the Illinois Department of Public Health, Illinois State Board of Education and Governor’s Office earlier this week, an action that could be seen as passing the buck for an ultimate cancellation. If a cancellation, or potential schedule adjustment, comes next week, I wouldn’t see it as much as passing the buck as it is handing over a vital public health decision to people more qualified to decide those things.
But that doesn’t mean that’s what’s coming. Contrary to the beliefs of those who proudly boast their “Pritzker Sucks” yard signs, Illinois has managed the virus tremendously when compared to other states, particularly the ones we neighbor. Some might choose to see the state’s aggressive push to halt the spread as a reason to forecast the loss of fall sports. I see it as a glimmer of hope we’ll have stopped this nasty virus enough to have sports back.
And until any final word comes, that positive mindset is what I’ll continue to have.