President Donald Trump held a conference call with the commissioners of the leading professional sports leagues in the country on April 4. According to reporting, the president discussed his response to the coronavirus pandemic and the desire for professional sports to return to normal by the fall of this year. COVID-19 concerns caused major sports leagues to shut down in mid-March. The NBA acted first after two members of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus. The president meanwhile has tried to distract the public with positive news of any kind. At Saturday’s task force briefing, the president said, “he believes all pro sports leagues will be able to resume normal operations “sooner rather than later.” The president hasn’t offered specifics on his plan yet. But he’s signaling he wants to leverage sports again to score points with the public. Even if mass gatherings are still unsafe.
Why Donald Trump Wanting Sports to Return Sooner Rather Than Later Is a Bad Idea
The major leagues, associated businesses, and fans all want sports to return as soon as possible. Forbes wrote “for major sports properties…the cost of being sidelined for two months will be at least $5 billion….” “That figure includes lost sales of tickets, concessions, sponsorships and TV rights fees.” But there’s no way for leagues to know when’s the right time to come back. Only public healthcare officials should make that decision.
The coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease spreads easily from person to person from contact within six feet. There isn’t a major spectator sport where spectators keep safe distances away from one another. Between tailgating, sitting in stands, lines for concessions and restrooms, sporting events pack people in like sardines. And, do we really want to watch sports without crowds? If you watched recent WWE events held on closed sets, spectator sports definitely need the energy of a live audience.
More than 90 percent of the country is under some sort of shelter at home order. Only eight states have refused to abide by the White House’s recommendations. So before sports can return to normal, massive testing of Americans would need to take place. Therapeutic drug treatments need to be tested, approved and distributed on a large scale. To date, there are no approved therapeutics and a potential vaccine for COVID-19 is at least a year to 18 months away.
The president believes American life can get back to normal when major cities get through the apex of their infection curves. But even his own task force has warned about the next wave of the coronavirus in the fall. Coincidentally that’s when the NFL season would kick-off. Sports should not return sooner than later. So what’s the rush?
Trump Will Pressure the Commissioners
The president’s need to get back to normal may set up a culture war– with fans caught right in the middle. On one side, there’s the president and league commissioners. On the other side, the public health officials backed by state governors who are much more cautious about lifting social distancing orders anytime soon.
The president is no stranger to leveraging sports to fan cultural flames. When NFL players knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump lashed out at league owners. He told a rally crowd in Alabama, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say. “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!'” Roger Goodell will not want to get on the president’s bad side again and will be under tremendous pressure to risk players’ lives and get games back on the field.
Sports vs Science–Who Wins?
Science isn’t stopping Dana White from taking controversial steps to bring the UFC back. White has revealed plans to use a private “Fight Island” to hold MMA contests on a weekly basis. Also, the New York Times reported the UFC planned to hold its next pay-per-view event from Native American tribal land on April 18. The locale allows the UFC to circumvent California’s executive order to stay at home. White planned to hold the event without fans in attendance, but ESPN stepped in and convinced White to change his mind. White announced UFC 249 is postponed.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s plans are almost as crazy as the UFC’s. The league wants to sequester players for four and a half months and play all the games in Arizona. The only travel by players, coaches and staff would be to and from the stadiums. In order to maintain social distancing orders, meetings on the mound would be forbidden. Players would sit in the stands instead of the dugout. An electronic strike zone would keep umpires safer. According to media reports, the MLB is only waiting on the go-ahead from federal officials to move forward. But the question remains, what’s the president’s true motivations? Does he need a distraction from his administration’s poor handling of the pandemic? Perhaps he needs to prove he’s in charge and he controls the timeline, rather than public health officials.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver seems to be the only sports executive to be using common sense. He recently said, “I think in some ways, just as I listen to the public health experts and the people advising us, the virus is potentially moving faster than maybe we thought at that point….” “What that means, in terms of our ability to come back at some point, whether it be in late spring or early summer, is unknown to me.”
Donald Trump will also have to contend with state executives. Governor Gavin Newsom of California was asked if he expects the NFL to resume play in August or September with full stadiums at a weekend press briefing. He said “he is not anticipating that happening in this state.” Dr. Jeffrey Smith, Santa Clara County executive officer, took the prediction a step further. He anticipates sports may return by no earlier than Thanksgiving.
Sports is a distraction that we can all use, but don’t fall for the “okey doke.” The president wants to distract Americans from the administration’s errors handling the pandemic. Professional sports is great–it’s not worth dying for.