The Games Must Go On
In any other baseball season, two Cleveland Indians pitchers hitting the bars in Chicago after a Saturday night game wouldn’t be news. It wouldn’t cause a minor scandal within the team’s clubhouse, and it certainly wouldn’t result in the two offending players being immediately removed from the Indians’ roster.
But that’s exactly what happened after Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac—two-fifths of Cleveland’s excellent starting pitching rotation—got caught trying to sneak back into their hotel in the early morning hours of August 8. Their teammates were so upset that they threatened to opt out of the rest of the season if the two pitchers were allowed to remain with the team, according to media reports. Facing a clubhouse revolt, Cleveland’s front office made the decision to “option” both players off the major league roster for 10 days—a maneuver that would typically mean a player was demoted to the minor leagues, if only there were minor leagues this year.
Sports are back! Clearly, however, things are still far from normal.
There’s no playbook for how to conduct professional athletic events in the midst of a pandemic. The guidelines that we’ve all learned to follow in recent months are only so helpful—good luck playing any team sport while maintaining six feet of social distance from your opponents on the field, court, or rink and your teammates in the locker room.
In that regard, bringing the games back before the pandemic dissipated was, like everything else we do these days, not about eliminating risk but about mitigating it. Different leagues have responded in different ways, and their various choices have relied on a combination of formal strategies shaped by economic and political considerations unique to each sport and informal coping mechanisms—like Cleveland’s ballplayers policing one another’s behavior and objecting when the actions of one or two people put everyone else at risk.
As is always the case, sports during COVID-19 have served as a reflection of the broader American experience. But sports don’t just reflect the culture; they exist in dialogue with it. The return of professional athletics is not a return to normalcy by any means—the stadiums are empty, the cheering simulated—but after a long setback, it does represent a step forward into the next stage of living with a serious problem that we don’t yet know how to solve. In some ways, sports offer a massive real-world experiment in how to safely navigate a pandemic without simply shutting everything down.
The Blackout and the Bubbles
That experiment began, of course, by simply shutting everything down.
On the evening of March 11, National Basketball Association (NBA) players from the Utah Jazz were preparing to host the Oklahoma City Thunder when Rudy Gobert, a forward for the Jazz who had been feeling unwell for days, tested positive for COVID-19. The game was immediately canceled, just minutes before tip-off.
From there, the dominoes fell quickly. Gobert’s teammates were told to go home and quarantine immediately. But the Jazz had played five other teams in the previous two weeks, and each of those teams had played several others. Epidemiological lingo like “test and trace” was not yet familiar to most Americans, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver quickly did the unpleasant arithmetic. The next morning, he announced that the league would enter a 30-day hiatus—one that would eventually be extended to more than four months. The National Hockey League (NHL) also suspended play on March 12, and Major League Baseball (MLB) teams began canceling spring training games. The chaos of the moment was perhaps best demonstrated by the Big East, a college athletics conference, which made the decision to cancel its annual basketball tournament that same day—in the middle of a game between St. John’s University and Creighton University.
The last pro basketball game played before the pandemic was a 113–97 win for the Dallas Mavericks against the Denver Nuggets. The game began like any other, but the teams were informed midway through the third quarter that the league was shutting down. They walked off the floor not knowing when they would return.
It would be 131 days before any of the four major North American sporting leagues resumed competition, when the first pitch of the new MLB season was thrown on the evening of July 23. (If you count Major League Soccer, which returned to play a few weeks before baseball did, the blackout still lasted more than 100 days.)
The shutdown was a completely unprecedented event in the century-plus history of organized team sports in America. The Spanish flu epidemic had caused the cancellation of the 1919 Stanley Cup final between the Montreal Canadiens
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