Monday night on ESPN, six professional sports league commissioners from across the country appeared on a SportsCenter Special hosted by Mike Greenberg which dealt with “the return of sports” and also touched on recent civil unrest around the country.
As all know, the coronavirus pandemic has halted play in every sports league in America, but as the country begins to slowly reopen, professional sports leagues will be looked at to either continue or start the seasons.
The six commissioners who participated: Roger Goodell (NFL), Adam Silver (NBA), Rob Manfred (MLB), Gary Bettman (NHL), Cathy Engelbert (WNBA) and Don Garber (MLS).
MANFRED is under the most scrutiny right now.
Last week, he said there was a “100 percent chance that baseball will be played this season.” On Monday, he heavily walked back that statement and then insinuated that he’s “not confident” there will be a season, citing what he called an “end to good faith negotiations” by the players over financial issues as well as health and safety issues among other factors. The players association is placing the burden of blame on the league, saying the league is the entity not operating in good faith.
Ongoing discussions between the league and the players association have been tense, and now there is a real risk that baseball may not return until the 2021 season.
“The owners are committed to trying to find a way through this and getting the game back on the field,” said Manfred, hopeful that future communication between the league and the players association can be cooperative. “It remains their strong preference to get back on the field with agreement of the players.”
Manfred admitted that the situation with baseball — the only league without some sort of current plan in place to return — has been a disaster.
BETTMAN and the NHL have announced a return to play outline, one that has a 24-team playoff tournament in two hub cities to be determined.
The Buffalo Sabres won’t be participating in that bracket, but the rough August to October timeframe is set with a playoff bracket which includes meaningful hockey games for the first time since March 11, despite these upcoming playoff games not having fans. Usually 16 teams would make the playoffs, but the league decided on more teams because they had a number of teams on the bubble with a legitimate chance of making the playoffs, and the league granted a “play-in round” for those teams 17-24.
The bracket contains several rounds of Best-of-7 series, similar to how the Stanley Cup Playoffs would operate. The league’s return-to-play plan includes a training camp (slated to begin July 10) to give players ample time before the playoffs so they can get back into “game ready shape” as some haven’t skated in months. Players and supporting personnel will be tested daily in those hub cities, and any positive test will result in isolation of a particular player but Bettman said a few isolated positive tests shouldn’t interfere with plans and the ability to move forward to crown a champion. A widespread outbreak, though, would be problematic.
“Everybody can feel good based on the combination of the play-in round and the way we’re going to run the playoffs, that this will be a full competition that will bring out the best in our teams and our players, and the Stanley Cup champion will be deserving of that crown and the most storied trophy in all of sports,” Bettman said.
THE NBA also has a return date, set for July 30, with 22 teams set for play, also at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla. Each of the 22 teams (the 16 teams currently in a playoff spot plus six teams who are close to the eighth seed in each conference) will play eight regular season games followed by a standard 16-team playoff bracket. Several players have expressed hesitation in returning for a variety of reasons, though.
“It will entail enormous sacrifice on behalf of those players and for everyone involved, the coaches, the referees,” Silver said. “It’s not an ideal situation. We are trying to find a way to our own normal in the middle of a pandemic, of essentially a recession, and now with enormous social unrest in the country. We’re dealing with extraordinary circumstances. What we’re trying to do has never been done before is find a way to create our own sense of normality through all these incredibly difficult societal forces.
“The entire NBA community has an obligation to try this because the alternative is to stay on the sidelines, to give into this virus. For us, this is what we do. We put on basketball, and for the country it will be a respite. In terms of social justice issues, it will be an opportunity for the NBA to draw attention to these issues. What should this league, that may have a unique opportunity as compared to almost any organization in the world, be doing, in response to endemic racial issues in society? There’s more this league can do. The world’s attention will be on the NBA if we’re able to put this on.”
FOR GOODELL, it has been mostly business as usual.
The NFL season was over by the time the pandemic struck the United States, and the league is operating under the belief that there will be a full season beginning in September. NFL facilities are open, and free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft went on as scheduled.
“It’s been a different offseason for us, but it’s also been a chance for us to show we can adapt and do things right,” Goodell said. “We might have to do things we thought impossible a few weeks ago. It will evolve. As circumstances change, we will change our protocols appropriately.
“All our medical experts indicated that as testing becomes prevalent, we’re going to have positive tests. The issue is can we prevent as many of those from happening and treat them quickly. I think our protocols are working. We’re seeing very positive reactions in the sense of making sure we respond quickly and protect the personnel impacted and others who may be in contact with them.”
DR. JENNIFER Ashton, a chief medical correspondent for ABC, explained the current uncertainty leads to a future uncertainty.
“There’s no easy answer,” she said. “Everyone has to stratify their own risks. The benefits and risks of going and not going (to games). There are four factors — time, space apart, how densely crowded and indoors/outdoors. There are absolutely more questions than answers. We don’t have a crystal ball; we don’t know what’s going to happen in November and January. We don’t know how this virus will behave in the future.”
Players Patrick Kane (NHL), Alejandro Bedoya (MLS), Crystal Dunn (NWSL), Damian Lilliard (NBA), Brianna Turner (WNBA), Matt Ryan (NFL) and Calais Campbell (NFL) also spoke about their individual leagues’ return to play strategies and about social change and reform issues, namely in rebuke of the “stick to sports” motif.
A montage was shown from professional athletes taking part in protests across the country. There was also a discussion of the role sports can play to foster healing and change when it comes to social justice.
A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela applies: “Sport has the power to change the world,” he said. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”