Draft:Sports & Covid-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe in February 2020, sport was among the many things that was completely halted, with some leagues choosing to end their seasons, delay their season starts, and to the many that were already in full swing, call a hiatus to wait to see if the season could be salvaged at a later date. With the likelihood this disease shall remain a present in human society, it is important to understand how sport has already changed in a pandemic environment, and what changes are coming for the future of sport.
Why Sports Matter
Sport is the reward of a functioning society. If most of society has met the basic demands of it's citizens, people will use the extra time not worrying about making sure there is food on their table or a roof over their head to seek entertainment. Most civilizations throughout history have featured sport in some way into their society. For the Greeks, competitions of strength, speed and strategy were a way to seek higher enlightenment, as well as reward those seeking to hone their bodies to be stronger, faster and smarter. Roman (Gladiator, Naumachia, Chariot Racing) and Meso-American / Native American (Mesoamerican ballgame,Lacrosse) societies sought to highlight the competition of peoples they had conquered. Sport has also unified societies in trying times, like the South African national rugby team after Apartheid (1995 Rugby World Cup) or the Ivory Coast national football team during civil war. It also functions as less lethal way for nations to compete against one another (to my knowledge there have been fewer deaths in matches between English and French football teams than their 100 Year Wars). Additionally sport provides structure for children in their development, introducing them to rules, sportsmanship, teamwork, and competition in a lower stakes environment. Team sport, especially at the professional level, becomes a part of societies culture and identity, sometimes even stronger than other cultural factors like race, religion, gender, or socio-economic status. There is even evidence that a poor result from a team can have a negative impact on societies productivity.
When societies break down, sports are among the first things to fall to the wayside, as other needs become more important, but simply disappearing over the course of a week can have serious societal consequences.
The Week Shi*t Hit the Fan
While word of a pathogen tearing through Wuhan, China, much of the world continued as if nothing had happened. But as more information came out throughout February, and a handful of cases appeared in other places around the globe, the sports world began to take notice. Vietnam, thought to have to deal with an influx of cases because of it's shared border with China, cancelled all sporting events in February. FIBA Asia Cup qualifying, involving China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines was also called off. During February, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49er's in the SuperBowl, UEFA Champions League played two knock out round Match days across Europe, and athletes across the globe were preparing for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The second week of March proved decisive. Serie A in Italy, the Bundesliga in Germany, the Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Ligue 1 in France as well as the NBA and the NCAA in the United States all abandoned their season between March 8 - 11. Amateur sports abandoned their seasons as well. The United States had an especially dramatic cancellation happen on March 11. While games had started for many teams with a 17:00 EST tip off, many other teams (mostly East of the Mississippi River) had yet to start, including a match up between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in Oklahoma City. Earlier in the day Jazz Center Rudy Gobert, had made light of the pandemic in a pre-match interview, making sure to touch every single microphone on the table in front of him. He later complained of symptoms similar to Covid-19, and received a positive result. Players were on the court, ready to play, when officials sent both teams to their locker rooms, then announced the game had been called off, telling the spectators to leave. The NBA found several infections after testing every single player and staffer from the Jazz and Thunder. NBA officials called the season off while games were still happening, leading to this wild moment from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, discovering the decision on his phone while sitting court-side.
Just like many of the rest of us, athletes spent the months of March, April and May staying home. Practice facilities were closed, leading to many athletes trying to find unique ways to stay in shape. Eventually the summer Olympics were rescheduled (to 2021) as well as World Cup Qualifying tournaments in Europe and South America as it became clear the pandemic could not be controlled by June. During this time high profile athletes became infected with Covid-19, while countries sought to rein in the disease.
While Germany, Norway and Finland managed the crisis fairly well, Spain, Italy and the UK were ravaged reaching hundreds of thousands of cases and tens of thousands of deaths. German sport returned Mid-May with the Bundesliga. To do so, the league instituted league wide testing to find infected athletes and return healthy athletes to training with strict protections in place, including reduced number of athletes on the grounds, mask wearing and physical distancing. Clubs also barred fans from watching matches in stadiums, in keeping with local guidelines to limit the number people gathering. The Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga returned to play in June, following similar protocols. Euroleague (basketball) however abandoned its 2019-20 season in it's entirety.
Amusingly, in Belarus, they continued playing football, as dictator Alexander Lukashenko insisted there wasn't an epidemic in his country. Lukashenko recommended Vodka and bathhouse visits to stop infection. Not surprisingly, he contracted Covid-19.
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan suspended sport quickly, wary after SARS ravaged South East Asia in the early 2000's. Because they locked down so early, they were able to restart suspended football seasons, and start baseball without fans. Taiwan and South Korea have even welcomed back fans.
Australia and New Zealand shutdown hard and early when Covid spread. Having the advantage of being surrounded by oceans, the managed to basically stop local infections. In Australia they intend to play all their league football matches and rugby also returned, without fans. New Zealand however managed the crisis so well, not only did rugby return, but so did 35,000 fans.
Much of South America locked down early, with the exception of Brazil led by Jair Bolsonaro who can be safely called a Covid skeptic. With no nationwide lock-down, individual states created rules limiting gatherings in March. But encouraged by Bolsonaro, clubs including Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo and their rivals Vasco de Gama returned to training. The season only had two matches remaining, and while Brzail is still putting up astonishing numbers of infections and deaths (and Bolsonaro contracted Covid-19) they plan to resume training for preperations for the 20-21 season already. Many other countries plan to resume play, some who have managed it well (Paraguay has 11 Covid related deaths) and others who haven't. (Bolivia with 5,300 Covid deaths is second only to Brazil in South America) Bolivia and Peru are discussing the idea of a "bubble" the choice of North American leagues.
North & Central America
Nowhere is sport and society more tightly intertwined than the US. While Mexico and Canada have their own sports league, Canada features teams in the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS and Mexico hosts NBA, NFL and MLS matches frequently. CONCACAF cancelled virtually all football competitions for it's members, including international competitions, FIBA America's has also put multiple qualification tournaments on hold, including for new olypmic 3 x 3 basketball. The first "competition" to return was golf, featuring two charity matches, the NWSL was the first league to return in North America with a tournament in Utah. With the pandemic still raging in the United States, the NWSL guidelines to return were replicated by the NBA, MLS, WNBA and NHL, namely keep all competitors at one facility, test everyone in the bubble regularly and limit the amount of people allowed enter the bubble. Showing the continued influence of the virus, several high profile players opted out and the 13 team league only featured 12 when the Orlando Pride saw widespread infections on its team and didn't even travel.
The NBA, MLS and WNBA decided to operate in bubble facilities in Florida (when the decision was made in May, many thought Florida had avoided the worst of the crisis, but when competitions began in June and July Florida had become the epicenter of the Covid crisis in the United States.) with NBA and MLS staking claims at Disney World Wide World of Sports complex and the WNBA at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. MLS had barely gotten a month into their season before abandoning in March, and the WNBA typically began their season in June, but the NBA was nearly 3/4 complete into their season so changes needed to be dramatic for their format. MLS reintroduced it self with a seeded tournament,(two teams didn't make the trip to Orlando, FC Dallas Nashville SC) and the WNBA planned to play it's 22 game regular season and playoffs all in the bubble. The NBA playoffs feature sixteen teams, eight from it's Eastern and Western Conferences, but the places on each side had been yet to be settled. The NBA chose to invite twenty-two teams to Orlando; thirteen from Western Conference and nine from the Eastern Conference, who will play eight games to determine their play-off seed. Though a couple players were found to be infected before they arrived, after two weeks on campus the NBA has had no players infected while on campus.
MLB haggled extensively over whether to even have a season (they were in Spring training when things shut down), but players and owners negotiated a 60 game season. But unlike NBA, MLS, WNBA and NHL, they chose to play their games at their home stadiums. And unlike the NBA, WNBA, MLS and NHL detailed protocol's including requirements for players physical distancing and behaviour, MLB opted for recommendations. This so far, has proven to be a disaster, starting with an entire team becoming infected, forcing the MLB to rearrange entire schedules, and the MLB commissioner signaling the season may be abandoned if they cannot manage the outbreaks.
College sports (for people unfamiliar, in the US there is an amateur sports body called the NCAA, that profits from Black athletes, provides no financial compensation, and the profit making sports of American football and basketball fund all the other sports and competitions) were halted in March right before the very popular (and very profitable) men's basketball tournament, featuring sixty-six teams playing across the country over three weeks. Spring sports were completely abandoned as campuses sent students home. However schools planned for the pandemic to be under control by the time the American football season would begin in late August, including planning to host fans in the stadium. However the virus is currently running rampant across states that have deep American football roots (Alabama, Georgia, Tennesse, Florida, Louisiana, California), which threatens billions of the NCAA's revenue. There have already been several outbreaks among teams, as well as teams lying about Covid, encouraging players not to reveal symptoms. This is especially egregious, considering the players have no bargaining power, though some players are threatening to sit out without systemic changes. The University of Connecticut on August 5 became the first school to cancel American football this season.
The National Football League (NFL), the most valuable league on the planet at $13 Billion, completed it's season in February. During the entirety of the pandemic, they planned on everything being under control by the time their season started in early-September. It is now clear that they completely squandered that time, and are virtually unprepared for the season to begin. Similar to the MLB, they planned to have teams play games at their home stadiums, and with 55 players per squad, and tens of coaches and support staff a bubble seems an impossible feat. Already players are opting out of the season, and one of the most recognizable receivers in the league suggesting the NFL abandon plans for a season.