Mitch Albom: Sports teams have big plans to play — except in Detroit
With most of the country slowly reopening, let’s check in on sports.
An American spring is usually overwhelmed with basketball and hockey playoffs, the Masters, the French Open, MLB’s regular season and NFL minicamps. Instead, since mid-March, we have basically seen 1) a virtual football draft, 2) a rainy round of charity golf and 3) German soccer.
This is not a happy diet for ravenous American sports fans. It’s more like wilted lettuce on Melba toast. Which is why so many of us got excited when behemoths like pro basketball, pro hockey and college football recently announced official return dates.
Well, outside of Detroit, anyhow.
The Motor City will not see the Pistons or the Red Wings until the 2020-21 seasons – which may not begin until Christmas. If so, we’ll have been without basketball or hockey for nearly 10 months.
The reason? Our teams were not good enough. The Pistons were left behind while 22 NBA teams got to continue. The Red Wings were abandoned while 24 NHL teams skate on.
We’re like that kid who waddles home after not getting picked for kickball. No other city has TWO pro teams rejected for being lousy! You’d think we’d get some kind of consolation prize, like free pizzas.
But no. We can only watch. Or will we? How realistic are any of the leagues’ plans?
Let’s start with the NBA. Sure, it would have made way more sense to call the regular season over and take the top 16 teams into a postseason. But that would have left Zion Williamson on the sidelines, and he’s a big TV draw. Plus, players wanted to avoid injuries by playing in some non-playoff games first, which makes you wonder how hard the already-set teams are going to try.
Yet, despite all this, the Pistons may be luckier than we think.
Consider the plight of teams like the Phoenix Suns, who were six games out of the final playoff spot when the season was interrupted, yet made it under the wire for the restart.
The Suns must now do weeks of training camp, lock down in humid Orlando in the heat of the summer, be tested every day, and be shut inside a compound with limited family members — all to play eight games that will almost certainly be meaningless.
They are six games out of the final spot. If they lose their first three games they could be mathematically eliminated, yet have to stay in Orlando, risk injury or exposure to COVID-19, all without a chance to make the postseason, which, let’s face it, they were never making anyhow.
The Pistons’ deal suddenly doesn’t look so bad, does it?
Then there’s the players’ safety. Despite this general feeling of, “Hey, the sun’s out, restaurants are opening, and other stories are dominating the news,” COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere. It is no less potent than it was when Rudy Gobert was infected and possibly spread the disease to other NBA players, effecting an immediate shutdown.
Under the restart, players will be tested every night, and an infected player will be quarantined for at least seven days. But there are no new rules on contact. Players won’t be wearing masks while playing. So you have big guys, breathing hard, inches from each others’ faces, for a couple of hours every game and more during practices. Do we really think nobody will get the virus — or spread it? Based on what data? There hasn’t been any organized basketball anywhere (hardly even any pickup basketball) to suggest that the game is virus-safe. The NBA could start up and shut down in a matter of weeks.
Finally, there’s the money. Do players on teams like the Pistons not get paid the same as players on teams that ultimately don’t make the playoffs? That’s eight games of revenue. You could understand a Piston or an Atlanta Hawk saying, “Hey, I’m willing to play and you’re not letting me. Why should I get docked?”
Speaking of money, let’s talk baseball. Which is talking money. And getting nowhere.
Unlike the NBA and the NHL, which only had to figure out how to end their seasons, baseball has to figure out how to get started. And the players and owners are — what a shock! — not even close.
Those were recent numbers bandied about as players’ preference and owners’ preference. Whatever the gap, make no mistake — this is all about money. Not safety, not virus, money. We are seeing angry letters going back and forth from both sides, and lawyers and agents jumping into the fray. It all reeks of previous labor stoppages (1981, 1994-95) and isn’t garnering any sympathy from anyone. When bakeries can’t make their rent and health clubs can’t even open their doors, nobody blinks when Blake Snell tells an interviewer, “I gotta get my money, I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK?”
Baseball is kidding itself on many fronts. For one thing, while it dithers in compensation wars, the warm weather is passing. Unlike hockey or basketball, you can’t play baseball whenever you feel like it. Taking the season deep into October, or the playoffs into November, not only risks terrible weather and cancellations, it also lands smack in the middle of flu season, when most medical experts predict another COVID-19 surge.
And, unlike basketball, baseball hasn’t shored up plans for a bubble-like existence. Without that — with players and coaches going home, interacting with the outside world — you are exponentially increasing the chance of virus exposure and spread. MLB has proposed a safety plan (no spitting, no high fives) — which may be a moot point if they spend a few more weeks arguing over dollars.
Hockey and football?
Hockey? Well, you may not care if you are a Red Wings fan, but the NHL has both the most creative and most confusing approach to a coronavirus postseason. As of Monday, teams can open their practice facilities for voluntary workouts, but only six players can enter at a time.
Then, at some point — still not determined — the teams will gather in two hub cities — still not determined — and start a complex series of qualifying and round-robin competition, all to get to some kind of playoff schedule that will begin exactly — uh, still not determined.
Good luck, guys.
Finally, let’s talk football. The NFL keeps acting like the virus will just get out of its way, as pretty much everything gets out of the way for pro football. It’s no surprise that the state of Texas, where football is its own religion, has announced stadiums can fill to 50% capacity. This should make Jerry Jones and the Cowboys happy. Meanwhile, other states aren’t even allowing barbershops to open. So you’ve got a disparity problem.
Not to mention the safety issue. Football is as contact-driven as it comes, and even a skeleton staff will likely mean around 100 team personnel. If there are no hub cities, and everyone is going home to their communities then coming into work — and flying in crowded planes — all during the expected second wave of COVID-19, well, you do the math.
To date, the NFL hasn’t rescheduled a single game. The same holds for major college football, which is even more baffling, as not all colleges have decided if they’re returning students in the fall, and not all states have determined if stadiums will be functional.
College has all the pitfalls of the pros as far as contact and exposure (in fact, college teams are larger); plus, college has one other factor: When the kids are done practicing, who is ensuring they are social distancing at night, on weekends, at frat parties, keggers, late-night get-togethers? Do you really think you can have college students on campus without parties?
And we haven’t begun to see what Title IX implies during COVID-19, as far as testing procedures, access to play and facilities, etc.
So what does it all mean? Well, to sum it up: for now, in mid-June, it seems likely we will see some sports — without fans — before the summer is out.
Unless you live in Detroit, in which case basketball is out, hockey is out, baseball may never start, and once again, it could all come down to the Lions.
Heaven help us.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.