Sports leagues should weigh options in face of pandemic



Despite worries about the escalating coronavirus outbreak, March 11, 2020, seemed poised to transpire just like any other late-season NBA game day. Then, just seconds before the Oklahoma City Thunder were set to tip off against the visiting Utah Jazz, a Thunder medical staffer rushed onto the court to confer with the officials. A Jazz player, later identified as center Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for the coronavirus. The game was postponed, and hours later, so was the season.

In many ways, this was the day it became clear that the virus would cause a significant disruption to everyday life in the United States for the foreseeable future. In addition to the postponement of the NBA season, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a pandemic, and President Donald Trump announced restrictions on travel from Europe to the U.S. Within weeks, schools, churches and non-essential businesses were shuttered, events were cancelled and social distancing guidelines were put in place to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The country’s major sports leagues and events were no exception to this effect. MLB cancelled the remainder of Spring Training and delayed Opening Day indefinitely. The NHL and MLS joined the NBA in suspending their regular seasons. The NCAA cancelled March Madness, the Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. The NFL decided to hold its draft entirely online.

Some leagues and television networks have made admirable efforts to keep fans entertained in the wake of this unprecedented sports vacuum. The NFL, NHL and NBA have temporarily granted fans free access to game replays from the 2019-2020 regular season in addition to some classics and other content. ESPN is planning to air the first episode of its much-anticipated documentary series about Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls team on April 19 instead of the previously announced June 2.

However, some leagues are already considering options for resuming or beginning their seasons. Chief among these is MLB, which is focusing on a proposal to start the season as early as May with all 30 teams playing in the Phoenix area without fans, according to a report from ESPN. This plan would utilize the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field as well as several nearby spring training facilities and other fields to complete games. Players and coaches would only travel between the stadiums and their hotels, where they would essentially be quarantined.

Though public health officials have reportedly expressed support for the plan, it faces hurdles. The loss of gate revenue, the question of player salaries, and the enormous logistical arrangements necessary are all issues that would need to be addressed.

These problems are reflective of the challenges that other leagues will face in the coming months as they examine their options for resuming activities. While professional sports would provide a welcome respite from the suffering and anguish caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and well-being of players, coaches, officials and fans must be prioritized. Any proposal that jeopardizes those considerations, or could consume needed resources, must be shelved for now.