The Loop

American pandemic sports are the pleasant surprise of the week (no jinx)

August 17, 2020

Garrett Ellwood

There was absolutely no reason to believe any of this would actually work.

Sure, fans like us wanted sports back to end our misery, and yes, the teams and owners wanted to salvage whatever money they could, and yes, a lot of the players wanted to play and get paid too. But merely wanting something doesn't make it practical or safe or smart. Based on how everything else in American life is trending two months ago, it felt very much like the return of sports would be the latest embarrassing disaster.

And we've had our tense moments. PGA Tour golf had a grim day or two at the Travelers in Connecticut, baseball seemed to be on the brink of collapse with the rapid spread of COVID among the Marlins and Cardinals, and in general the basketball bubble seemed ill-conceived, especially located in the heart of Florida. Yet here we are, a few months later, and the operations are still rolling. That includes the NHL with its modified bubble, where, as ESPN reported, there are basically no positive tests and the most noticeable thing about it is "how much COVID-19 hasn't impacted it."

There are challenges ahead, but even though it would be premature to do a victory dance (ask the Reds), it does seem like the major American sports leagues have figured out how to pull off the resumptions safely. I'm sure a good bit of that involves self-policing; there are stories in golf of players exerting pressure on those who failed to observe the protocols early, and after the Marlins and Cardinals went down, anyone in MLB who placed a foot wrong was immediately drummed out of the circle. That's critical—you can have the best bubble you want, or the best protocols, but it will all fail if there's no personal accountability. Golfers and baseball players go home between games, and even in an NBA-style bubble, you're only really "safe" as long as everybody adheres to the rules; these guys aren't under lock and key.

So far, though, the plans have been good, the accountability has been improving (especially after early missteps), and these leagues have shown the ability to survive even after positive tests. It will remain a tightrope walk, but this past weekend, I watched baseball, basketball, golf, and hockey (and some Champions League soccer, if you want to throw Europe into the mix). Even a month ago, none of that felt very likely. That merits a cautious thumbs up for the governing bodies.

And please, please, please, don't let any of this be a jinx.

The "Probably Still Screwed" Sport of the Week: College Football

I live in the North Carolina research triangle, home to Duke, UNC, and N.C. State, and already there have been three "clusters" at UNC, one of them at a fraternity, and I guarantee the same will happen at Duke when they start testing this coming week. I'm not here to get mad at the kids, but the fact is that there's no way you can throw a bunch of 18-22-year-olds onto a college campus and expect them not to congregate. Your brain's risk management system isn't fully developed until about age 27, and when you factor in the sheer energy of seeing friends again plus alcohol, forget it—the virus will spread.

Within that environment, can you really expect football players to behave any differently? If even 5% of them go to parties, or mix in other social gatherings, it's done. Football is the kind of sport where the minority will spread it to the majority as fast as a wildfire on a windy day. And when you have morons like the Liberty football team who aren't even testing, you can't pretend that there's even rudimentary preparation. With coronavirus spiking all over the south, and with some experts thinking there could be a second wave before the first has even crested, there's just no way any of this can work.

I give the NFL a shot, though. I wouldn't have two months ago, but seeing the success of other professional organizations, I think with intelligence and player buy-in, there's at least a faint prayer. It will be harder, since the game is so close and personal and unlike the NBA, they're not going to be able to enforce a bubble. Still, it's possible. But college football? No way. The Big Ten has already opted out, and I think you'll see everyone else, with the possible exception of the SEC, read the writing on the wall and follow suit before long.

The Egregious Gaffe of the Week: Raheem Sterling, Manchester City

The situation: Champions League quarterfinal, Manchester City vs. Lyon, and Lyon holds a late 2-1 lead despite Man City getting the best of them in the run of play. Finally, in the 86th minute, Man City created a beautiful opportunity in front of a basically empty net. Enter Raheem Sterling:

Sterling is already known as somebody who struggles in big moments, and hoooo boy, this is not going to help his reputation. Especially because Lyon soon got the insurance goal and eliminated Man City. You can watch that video 300 times, and you won't come any closer to understanding how he missed.

Hilarious Entrepreneur of the Week: Jimmy Butler

Charging $20 for a cup of coffee when supplies are scarce during a pandemic would normally be a gross example of price gouging, but when your clientele are rich basketball players, it's just funny. Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat is doing exactly that; he's got a French Press, you can't get good coffee anywhere in the bubble, and he's taking advantage. The "menu" is hilarious on its own:

The small seems over-priced at $20, while the large...also seems overpriced at $20.

Even better, Butler isn't finished. "You can't get coffee nowhere here," he told ESPN. "So I might bump it up to 30 bucks a cup. People here can afford it."

If nothing else, it gives him another incentive to beat the Pacers in their opening-round series. If you're going to price gouge, scarcity is key, and you need to stay in the bubble.