If you want to write a plan that you know may have to change, you use pencil.
If you want to write a plan that may have to change six thousand times, including a few seconds later, you use disappearing ink.
That’s the unique situation that sports leagues around the world find themselves in right now.
How can we get back to playing sports? When can we start? How does it work? If we use cardboard cutouts for fans, is that enough?
Before getting caught up in the who, what, where, when and why, it’s useful for us to stick first to the United States. From there, let’s divide the world of sports into professional and amateur.
Why would it make a difference if the athletes are getting paid or not? Aren’t the risks the same?
The risks may be the same, but the rewards, otherwise known as paychecks and liability contracts, aren’t.
If, say, Major League Baseball can get the teams, players, coaches and staff to agree to hold games, they can write contracts that define exactly how it will work. If someone gets sick, what do we do? Who is legally responsible for someone’s health?
If they all agree to quarantine themselves together and play games and get paid for it, that’s their business.
But when it comes to college students, which is what we are talking about when we talk about amateur sports in this country, it’s an entirely different matter.
The simple thing to understand is that there will be no college football or basketball this fall if there is no college.
Right now, lots of schools are saying there will be no face-to-face college this fall. This biggest group of institutions to announce such an intention is the California State University system. The CSU system has nearly 500,000 students in it, plus approximately 50,000 faculty and staff members.
If the general college population is not going back to campus in September, there is zero justification for sending athletes back to school just so they can practice and compete against one another while trying not to get each other sick.
There wouldn’t be enough lawyers in the world to file all the lawsuits that would result from student-athletes getting sick because they breathed and sweated all over one another.
Compare college football players with their NFL brethren. NFL players are, as the saying goes, grown-you-know-what men. If they can reach a legal agreement with the NFL that sees them return to the field at the risk of getting sick, so that they can earn a paycheck and the league and the teams can make money, then that is their choice—assuming our federal government doesn’t magically develop a national policy about such things, which it doesn’t seem any too eager to do.
But what about the other colleges that have already come out and said that they will allow students to return in September, such as Baylor University?
It seems unlikely that they will allow sports to continue, even with students back on campus. And even if they do, who will they play? It’s not crazy to envision our country being divided between those who return to some semblance of normalcy and those who remain in a state of quarantine. Hopefully conferences will have a united policy, so that all the teams within the conference have the same policies, even in different states with different virus situations.
Again, expect the return of some professional sports sometime this summer—unless the second wave of the virus is worse than the first—but it will likely be things like soccer and baseball and hockey.
Will the players wear masks? Will the refs? What about older coaches, especially those with underlying health conditions?
These are among the questions that will have to be answered.
The only thing we know with any certainty at this juncture is that things will not look or feel the same for quite some time, be it sports-related or otherwise.