Jordan: Not that long ago, it seemed like the pandemic was coming under control, and not just in Canada, but around the world, and even maybe in the United States. At least enough so that we could perhaps have a reward this summer.
News Clip: Well, it’s been almost three months, but finally we can say it’s time to play ball on Tuesday. Basketball fans could soon have something to cheer for again, after the NBA board of governors signed off on a tentative plan to resume the season on July 31st. The NHL is getting ready to get back on the ice.
Jordan: And I mean, look, if you watch the news at all, you don’t need me to tell you that the under control part of that might have been a little premature, especially in the States.
News Clip: We’re seeing spread across the South. That trends stay, in terms of the new numbers was also concerning. 36,000 new cases today.
Jordan: So, that’s not great. But still, sports are coming back, they say. These are incredibly rich teams and incredibly well-paid athletes. They have access to the best testing, to bubbles to keep them apart from the outside world, to the very best medical care, and everything they could possibly need to stay safe and give us the distraction that, look, a lot of us desperately crave. And yet still:
News Clip: Word today from the NBA on the coronavirus testing conducted on its players on Tuesday. 302 players tested 16 positive tests. 26 players have tested positive. Now that is the kind of news fans, officials, owners, everyone does not want to hear as the league–
Jordan: So here we are. A few weeks away from the NBA and the NHL and major league baseball returning to action. And football training camps should be opening soon. And all of it feels a bit dumb and unnecessary and dangerous. Should they be playing? Honestly, probably not. If they do, will I watch? Yes. And this is where sports fans find themselves. Hoping against hope that the players they love and the staff and their coaches can stay healthy enough to do what they do best, while grappling with the sinking feeling that this could really end quite badly. So sports are back almost. But what happens now? I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Donnovan Bennett of Sportsnet has spent the last four months covering no sports. But he’s here to talk about maybe covering sports again. Hey Donnovan.
Donnovan: Hey, that would be nice for a change.
Jordan: I can imagine. Well, the last time we talked to you was not long after everything shut down. They had the night where Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA season ended and all the other leagues followed suit. What have the past four months been like in your world since then?
Donnovan: Yeah. So for people who didn’t listen to that podcast, and shame on all of them, at the time it was like, it was a little bit like you lost something cold turkey. Like, I can remember the immediate nights afterwards, just like reflexing, checking my phone, in apps on my phone at different times throughout the night to see sports scores because at 7:00, and 7:30, and 10:00, and 10:30, I was programmed to have basketball games and hockey games and eventually baseball games. And those went away really, really fast.
Jordan: I kept thinking that I forgot to set my fantasy lineups. And I was like, Oh crap. I didn’t. Oh, wait.
Donnovan: And for how long did you think that?
Jordan: Probably took a couple of weeks for it to like really sink in, you know.
Donnovan: I’m the exact same way. And then at some point, and maybe it was around Memorial Day, you know, when George Floyd lost his life and Amy Cooper, you know, weaponized Christian Cooper’s life by, you know, attempting to scare him by calling the police. Maybe I– maybe, I don’t know. All of those distractions didn’t seem to matter. And I had a different sense of focus. But now coming, I don’t want to say out of that, cause it’s still a real conversation, but now transitioning into having sports again, finding myself reconciling with, well there’s still another really important conversation that we all need to have. And we haven’t had it well enough because it’s still a huge issue. And that’s the way we as society are dealing with the coronavirus, COVID-19, and when some of the case numbers, not in terms of just new positive tests, but also deaths, are the exact same, if not worse, in many places in the United States, as they were in March when we were originally talking about this, I kind of feel like, well, wait, why are we starting sports again? It’s not necessarily an essential service. So as much as I would love to scratch that itch, and for as much as I would love to think about potentially having an NFL fantasy lineup to set, it does trouble me when I do hear other people talking about the fact that they’re happy so and so, in their keeper league already tested positive for the coronavirus, cause that means when the seasons come back, they’re probably not going to miss a game because they’ve already quarantined for two weeks. I’m afraid that as a society, we are so desiring for these games to come back, that we’re doing it at all levels. When it’s not best for certainly the players, but even from a public health standpoint, it might not be best, because one thing we know is true when the games went away, we took this virus more serious. And I’m afraid, as we start to reopen our economy, as the games come back, we’ll also fatigue and relax a little bit.
Jordan: And we’re going to talk about whether or not we’ll actually even make it to kind of these opening days, but what is the mood now in the sports world as kind of everything is just weeks away, it seems?
Donnovan: Yeah. Great question. I’ve been talking to different reporters who are in the various bubbles or quarantines as you have in MLS now in the NBA, and soon to be the NHL, as, you know, some of our friends are getting ready to go into that scenario. And I guess, I want to say it’s a mixture between cautious optimism, but with some overriding anxiety. And I think that’s just because of the general helplessness. Like a lot of these plans really, really deliberate and had people who are in the fight, medical professionals, reading through them front to back, and millions, in some cases, you know, almost a billion dollars spent on these plans to make sure they work. But at the end of the day, your best plans are based off of human individuals making good decisions, time after time after time consistently. But also not even just the players, the administrators, the coaches, the physicians, everyone in the surrounding communities, making good decisions consistently. And I don’t see that being the case in many parts of the Southern and Western United States. And more importantly, I don’t see that being the case in terms of the instructions or the legislation coming from the politicians in many places in the Southern and Western United States. And so in many ways I see. This being a huge problem waiting to happen. And some of the people who hope that you can get through with a bubble not being pierced and cover the games and figure out a way to hand out the Stanley cup and the Larry O’Brien trophy, they do know that it’s out of their hands in many ways, and that’s kind of scary.
Jordan: So how should fans, and I’m including myself here and probably you too, balance the knowledge that this is probably dangerous and maybe quite possibly shouldn’t be happening because of everything you’ve just detailed, and could end really badly, how do we balance that with the feeling of like, yes, sports please? Cause I know like, look, I know all the problems with it and if they come back on TV, I’m still going to watch for sure.
Donnovan: I don’t know how you balance it, to be honest. I mean, this is the cold, hard fact that commerce is king and it’s coming back. End of story. Right. It’s going to happen. They’re going to try and force this square peg into this round hole. And instead of bending our lives, and really sports, to the virus, they’re trying to bend the virus to sports. And I don’t necessarily know that that’s going to work. You might get lucky and not have a huge issue, but they’re coming back. And there is some greater good in them coming back. There are huge sub economies that are dependent off of sports and their industry. We can even use collegiate sports as a great example. And you know, earlier this week, the presidents of the Ivy league schools said fall sports? Gone. Not happening. Sorry, football. It’s not going to happen on our campus. If we can’t have students on our campus in the same way, we certainly can’t have student athletes. And there may be a trickle effect to the other power-five sports. But one thing we already know, and we’re already seeing, is that programs are being cut, canceled during the pandemic. Stanford canceled 11 different sports. Because of title nine issues, you have to keep a safe balance of women’s sports, so that means many men’s sports are gone. Wrestling, track and field, you know, lacrosse. And so the industry that is sports, specifically football and basketball, if that goes away, that doesn’t feed a lot of college sports, which takes away a lot of scholarships. So takes away education for a lot of people and families who wouldn’t have access to it. So there is a massive, massive ripple effect for our entire economy, our entire culture. And you can reconcile that with the fact that yeah, if sports comes back, it can do some harm, but it could also do some really good. So we should, I suppose, knock on wood and hope for the best, because they’re coming back in some form or fashion, regardless of whether or not we like it.
Jordan: Well, let’s walk through, then, maybe some of the major sports and what they’re doing, for people that haven’t been kind of tuned into, Oh, they’re going to do this now, and they’re going to do that? And let’s start with basketball because our guys are defending their title. What is the NBA doing, how are they coming back?
Donnovan: Yeah. So we’re around three weeks before the regular season is supposed to commence, and the NBA has decided they are playing all of their games without fans. They’re going to be at Walt Disney World complex in Orlando, Florida, a destination that when they were making their protocol, seemed like one of the best. The WWE was already there, UFC was there. Now, not so much, as Florida continues to set records for positive tests. The league is allowing players, for that very reason, to opt out of competing. It’s an option that’s been taken already by some big names like Bradley Beal, and Victor Oladipo. Their structure is this, not the entire is coming back, it’s 22 teams. They’re going to be playing eight seating games. So, whatever was salvaged from the regular season, which allows the league, if we’re being honest, to salvage some TV money. Then there’s going to be the traditional playoffs the way you would expect them. After the battle for those 16 playoff spots, you’re going to see, you know, one play eight in the East and West, and seven game series. The only real difference is, you know, the difference between game two and game three in a series is not going to matter because there will be no home court advantage. But that’s their plan. They’re bringing the entire league to the bubble. We’ve already seen some practice facilities, as teams try to get ready to go to the bubble, be shut down because of positive cases. That happened in Milwaukee, Sacramento, Miami LA. And the interesting thing with the NBAs plan is, they’ve got a little bit of ageism in their plan. They have more stringent tests for some of the old coaches, Alvin Gentry, for example, who’s 65, was cleared to make the journey nine minutes before the team bus was leaving because he had to have an EKG done and extra testing. Lionel Hollins, an assistant coach for the Lakers, he will not be allowed to come. So they are really looking at some of the science and saying, well, if we know this is more dangerous, and our aging population is more susceptible, then we are going to take steps and measures to make sure that we’re being prudent. Now, the coaches and the coaches association have pushed back and said, well, actually that’s discriminatory and you’re hurting the future employment of these coaches if they’re seen to have a marker. So it’ll be very interesting, because all of this is fluid, how that proceeds. Even to the point where there was, at one point an assertion that older coaches would have to wear a mask during games, is something that the coaching staffs pushed back at. So, we’ll see. There’s a concern with people leaving the bubble. So they’ve put in a rule that if you leave without approval, for minimum 10 days, you will have to quarantine once you’re down there, and you’ve quarantined once you’ve got there. The testing is deep nasal testing, which does not sound fun whatsoever. But they’ve been very clear that they, they can’t stop the players from leaving and they want to make sure the players are in good position, giving them three meals a day, four on game day. So yeah, they’ve put in measures, providing them with barbers, manicurists, pedicurists, hair braiders, and even things like no doubles ping pong, and all playing cards need to be disposed of after they’re used. Literally down to every single possible scenario, they’ve thought of, and they’ve come up with a ruling for, to make sure that they are putting themselves, and really their players, in the best possible position.
Jordan: How about the NHL, is that different? I know that in what seems like a really smart decision, given the current climate, that the NHL is coming to Canada.
Donnovan: Yes. And it really, they just kind of waited this out. And they had a bunch of hub cities and there was some speculation that’d be one in the West and one in the East, and one in the United States, and one in Canada, and Vegas was seen as the high favourite to be a hub city. And as people got anxious with wanting to know where the NHL is going, they just waited and waited until it was clear that not only was Canada as a country the safest place, that Edmonton and Toronto in the East and the West was safest. So, that’s where they’re going, and their plan is pretty good, just because the level of exposure for their athletes is so much lower than it is for people who are trying to restart their sports in the United States. And the NHL is really, they’re leaping right into, you know, high stakes action in terms of what they’re doing. The regular season is kind of over. I mean, the legal language is different depending on where that money goes and who the TV goes. But basically what you’re going to get when hockey comes back is 8 teams in each conference competing, best of five match-ups to advance to traditional playoffs, and then the top four teams in each conference have buys to the next round of again, real playoffs, but they’ll compete in a Round Robin for seating. So really just adding some value games for us in terms of our TV providers. The NHL’s protocols have been a little bit slower than the other leagues. They’ve really, really been taking their time in doing their due diligence. And so the players are first expected to report to team facilities on Monday, which is not the case. All the other major North American sports teams have had their players report. Those players will have testing for 48 hours. And that goes the same for personnel as well. Assuming they get through that period, then that will move them into the phase three of protocols. Anyone who tests positive, will have to, though, remain in quarantine for either 10 days or after two negative tests. So again, they’ve been really, really stringent in terms of how they are unleashing the opportunity to rejoin the team. And then you got phase four, which is the teams arriving to the hubs cities here in Canada. And then after that there’s a short turnaround, there’s a really quick preseason in terms of when they get into the hub cities and when the games count. And we’re really gonna have wall-to-wall games throughout, everyday, basically three games a day in every hub city. So the action, if you’re an NHL fan, is going to be pretty, pretty– it’s gonna be like March madness for hockey for a long time, which will be fun to see. Think of like an extended version of the pace of which the Olympic tournament is played at.
Jordan: If it wasn’t for the pandemic, that sounds absolutely amazing.
Donnovan: Well, yes. Yeah. If it wasn’t for the fact that many of the best players may not be playing by the time we get to this point, then yes, that sounds good. But, you know, give a thought to the larynx of poor Jim Houston, who has to be calling a lot of hockey this summer and fall.
Jordan: What about major league baseball? The sport of summer?
Donnovan: Yeah. I mean, you–
Jordan: That sigh kind of said it all.
Donnovan: Yeah. I mean, so there is an ugly dispute just to get to this point and fighting over not just health protocols, but money. And when you’re in a record recession, the general fan, isn’t really interested in months of bickering and negotiating over money. But the MLB’s approach is certainly more risky. They originally were going to play their seasons at spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona, where they could control everyone. And basically they would put a biosphere around, you know, those areas. Only problem is, Florida and Arizona are now terrible areas. So scratch that. MLB teams will be playing out of their home markets, which again is an issue because now you have real travel. You have cross contamination possibilities as players are going from city to city and getting on planes and going through airports. But also it’s going to be impossible to know where the hotspots are going to be throughout the United States for the next two, three, four months. So you’re always going to have players in danger at some point. It’s like they’re playing whack-a-mole with the virus, but here we are. The season’s going to be shortened, so they’re hopefully going to try and sprint to get to the end where they can hand out the trophy. But still despite that, and despite just a 60 game season, when it’s normally 162, several players have opted out of the season. David Price, Ian Desmond, Felix Hernandez. So again, that bears watching. The best player in the sport, Mike Trout is expecting a child, in the near future. And so it’s still unclear on, once he leaves the quarantine, how long he’ll have to quarantine when he comes back, even though everyone’s travelling the United States anyway. Plus, is he going to want to leave young child and new mom to come back and finish a 60 game season? So we’ll see. But again, already, some ballparks have been shut down. The Nationals, the Houston Astros, the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, all cancelled workouts because of positive tests. And this is the most important part about their entire plan. They’re just starting it. So they’re just starting to get players back and testing them to make sure everyone is okay and healthy going into the season. And then you just are trying to maintain that health. Well, not only have you had, you know, 66 positive tests split between, you know, 58 players and eight staff members, but the guys who are being tested aren’t getting the results very quickly. They were told they were supposed to be tested every other day. They’re being tested at this point once a week. And by the time they are getting another test, they haven’t got results for the first test. Major League Baseball has blamed the July 4th weekend and some issues with the testing coming out of their lab in Utah, they’re looking at maybe some additional labs to take in the tonnage of tests that they’re going to have to do throughout this process. But if this is how it’s starting, how are you going to be able to maintain the level of testing you need to make the safe for everybody when the season is going and everyone is travelling? So a lot of players are really, really concerned that they’ve got off on a bad foot. And again, these are 6,000 tests that they’ve already done. You know, the lab in Utah has taken 14,000 over the last couple of months. You’re going to ask them to do that for a sustained period, and you’re already finding that the workflow is not working? It doesn’t look good for baseball right now.
Jordan: So we’ve already seen, especially in baseball, you know, that a handful of positive tests aren’t slowing this thing down, which is also kind of nuts, cause if you remember when it shut down in the first place, it was like one positive test. But, do you have a sense of– does anybody, I guess, have a sense of how bad it would have to be to stop this now that the train’s kind of running away from the station?
Donnovan: Yeah, well, we’ve seen in soccer, whether it’s the NWSL and the Orlando Pride, basically shutting down the organization, or FC Dallas, pulling out of the MLS is Back tournament, which may not have been the best name, because MLS almost didn’t come back because of it. We’ve already seen that happen in other sports, but let’s be honest, that level of money that makes the cost benefit analysis a little bit different is not the same in the NWSL or the NLS, as it is in the four sports that we just discussed. So aside from a star of all stars, and it is terrible to look at this issue this way, because if we were talking to an ethics class in university and looking at it philosophically, well, one life is just as valuable as another. But aside from Anthony Davis, LeBron James, both testing positive and, you know, missing the first two weeks of the NBA finals or, you know, Mike Trout and Christian Yelich missing the first four games of the World Series, aside from star power like that being taken off the field where everyone said, well, this is not the same as an ankle sprain. This is much different and it’s hurting the credibility of the entire procedure, I think these leads are going to surge ahead because one, they know people like me and you will watch. And two, because they know that it’s important to their profits not just this year, there is a cascading effect on their viability and their profit margins in the coming years. And one thing we certainly know about the virus, and you’ve talked about this in this very podcast, the economic future for our country in Canada, the United States is unsure at best, especially when you come to ad dollars. So I think it’s a smash and grab, get as much as you can right now while you can. So aside from the stars of the stars not being able to play for a real important moment, I don’t think there is a number. I don’t think the league say, well, if the team X loses 25% of their salary cap to the coronavirus, then we’re going to pause. In fact, they don’t have time to pause because of how jam packed the schedule is, they have to get these games in. So they have a little bit of an off season to start next year. That’s how delayed everything has been.
Jordan: What if someone dies? That’s like, not out of the question here. This virus, I’m sure the mortality rate is higher in older people, but you know, an older coach in baseball, or even a young athlete because we’ve seen a healthy young people die of this too.
Donnovan: So this is a thought experiment that myself and Richard Deitsch, my co-host on the Sports on Pause podcast, have had for a while. What if someone dies? God forbid. And as sickening as it is, I think the followup question is, well, who died?
Jordan: Oh my God.
Donnovan: Is it a player? Is it an assistant coach? Is it a video coordinator? I sadly think that it matters. It shouldn’t, but I think it does. I think if a player dies, it’s not only would that league shut down, the other leagues would shut down, in the same way they were reactionary to Rudy Gobert’s positive tests. And now we know that there’s more of an allowance to a positive test. It’s not seen as the end of the world. Well, since we’re there culturally, I think the next spot to really shake the leagues and their commissioners and their owners, is a death. But I’m not certain if one of the manicurist dies, if the league is going to shut down. I think there might be some thoughts and prayers in a moment of silence. And I think there might be off coming up after this commercial break. If a player dies, I think that’s totally different. Again, I don’t think that’s the way it should be, but I think that’s the way it probably would be.
Jordan: It’s a lot to contemplate that it could even be pushed past that level. But since it might be I’m going to ask you, just cause we have time for a couple more questions. Assuming that nothing goes wrong, and you know, we’ve all got our fingers crossed, knocking on wood, like praying, et cetera, just for the health of these players and coaches and staff, do you think, assuming these trophies get handed out, that they matter as much? Less? More than trophies in a normal year? Like if the Raptors repeat, is there an asterisk?
Donnovan: I mean, listen, the American media will find a way to put an asterisk on the Raptors championship regardless. So the answer would be probably. I’ve listened to the stakeholders, the coaches, the players, the ones who are competing, and the thing I’ve resoundingly heard from them is, well, no, there’s no asterisk. If anything, you would highlight this championship, it would mean more because of how difficult the task is to stay on task for four months away from your family, with a new routine, basically you know, locked up in a hotel room, a very nice hotel room to be frank, but still, away from your comfort zone. And also if we’re being honest, the diligence, it took to maintain some level of professionalism and some level of chemistry as a team, to push through the unknown that was the last three, four months when you weren’t sure if you’re at home workouts every day were going to lead to anything at all. Many of them had said that this championship, in a way, would mean more. It would be more special. I think that’s true to a certain extent. If you win in everything is an even playing field, or as close to as possible then yes. But if a team wins because the team they play in the finals lost their head coach and two rotation players due to the coronavirus, there’s going to be a massive asterisk. I do think, though, we are in a moment in time that whoever wins, let’s say it’s LeBron James, and he gets another Larry O’Brien trophy and another, Bill Russell MVP award, and he’s one championship closer to Kobe Bryant, one championship closer to Michael Jordan, I do think if he uses that platform, that window to take the trophy and put a fist in the air and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, or he took the trophy and then took out a spatula and banged it like it’s a pot and pan and said, I see you our essential workers that are healthcare workers, and it’s your sacrifice, why I was able to play, so this is dedicated to you. I think in a way he would put himself in a Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali era, where we don’t even really care about who won the games. It was what they did with the opportunity and the success. And so LeBron’s a very specific example because he’s very intentional that way. But in general, if we get through this and we look back at this time in sports as able to contribute to the healing that we’re going through as a society, I think that the games would mean more in a way.
Jordan: My last question quickly, do you realize, do you ever sit back and think just to try to end this on a positive note, that if this does all come to fruition, you’d be watching the NBA and the NHL playoffs, at the same time as you’re watching the baseball playoffs, at the same time as you’re watching week two or three of the NFL regular season, that’s never happened before. And it could, if everything goes okay.
Donnovan: Yes. I certainly have, and I’m super interested what the leagues, what the broadcasters do, because this is true competition. This is going to be feast and famine. So I’m interested to see how they reimagine, how they tell stories, how they present their games, how they promote their games. And the true cream will rise to the top in terms of what is the most captivating? The great strategic moves of a world series baseball game and the manager making all of these decisions, you know, in that sort of chess, or the legacy building of the NBA and how a championship changes the way you view players, or just a love of fantasy and gambling and the ability to care about 53 players that you wouldn’t notice if you walked past them on the street in the national football league, or our pastime in this country, hockey, and the way that we call your gate around television sets and watch the Stanley Cup, even if our teams aren’t in it. And if our team isn’t in it, but there’s a team in the same country as ours, all of a sudden they become our team. I’m fascinated to see, with all of that at play at the same time, what really resonates and motivates people to watch and consume and talk. And so, yeah, we are going to be playing, you know, in the sandbox of sports, if we were able to get that opportunity. I really, really hope so.
Jordan: I hope so too, for, for us and also for the health and safety of the players and the staff and the coaches, and thanks Donnovan for giving us a glimpse of what could happen.
Donnovan: Thank you.
Jordan: Donnovan Bennett of Sportsnet. That was The Big Story. For more from us, had to thebigstorypodcast.ca. We have all our episodes there, including the last time we talked to Donnovan, when everything shut down. You can talk to us on Twitter, tell us if you will watch at @thebigstoryFPN. You can email us and tell me that there are so many more important things than sports right now, and I will say I know, but I’m still gonna watch. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, you’ll find this podcast in your favourite podcast player. Give us a rating, give us a review. Tell us what to think. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. I am out of here for two weeks. You will have some amazing guest hosts while I’m gone. And I will talk to you in the last week of July.
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