Sports in a bubble. That’s how return-to-play scenarios have been described. Empty stadiums. Teams quarantined in hotels between games and practices. Regular Covid-19 tests for all involved. The complicated plans reflect the eagerness to resume play — at least, the eagerness of pro sports leagues and President Trump. At a news conference on April 14, as several cities braced for a surge of coronavirus cases, Trump said, “We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old.”
Players, coaches, executives, and owners want sports back, too. They believe games provide an important social good, that they unify and uplift and inspire. Even in the midst of a pandemic, they still believe that’s possible. “There’s a right way to do this, and we definitely need to figure that out,” said Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale during a recent teleconference with reporters. “But I think the sooner we get back out there across all major sports, the better off we’re going to be.” After all, it’s hard to forget the role sports played during past crises. The return of sports symbolized the resiliency of the country after 9/11 and the resiliency of a community after the Boston Marathon bombings.
But in the days of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, sports journalists need to ask more than “When will sports come back?” They need to report on more than the latest return-to-play plans floated in MLB or NBA meetings. As sports businesses pivot to making PPE and assisting the fight against Covid-19 in other ways, sports journalists need to pivot, too, and recognize that their work fills a different role. Sports journalism is public service journalism now.
Return-to-play scenarios need to be carefully, intelligently, and objectively reviewed. No matter what protective bubble sports leagues create for competition, they cannot truly remove themselves from the real world. The sports world has always been a combination of bellwether and reflection of society. That remains the case. At this point, any decision that leads to group gatherings — to play or not to play — risks lives.
What does all this mean for sports journalists? They should put sports coverage into the larger context. They should challenge the premise that society needs sports now. While games signify normalcy and define daily routines and annual traditions in our sports-obsessed country, it’s important to remember they’re a luxury not a necessity. Even more important, sports journalists should call out sports figures who spread misinformation or attempt to minimize the threat posed by the coronavirus. Reporters have to hold pro leagues and teams and college football coaches accountable in different ways, to question whether returning to play is medically, socially, and ethically responsible. This is not the moment for blinders-on sports exceptionalism.
As much as sports brings communities together and gives many a sense of identity, there are more pressing issues than when anyone will go to the ballpark or stadium again. Sports journalists should dig deep into the logistics of return-to-play scenarios, then analyze not just what it means in terms of fair play, but also what scarce resources the plans would use. If asymptomatic players get tested weekly or even more frequently, who doesn’t get tested? Sports journalists should question what sports in a “bubble” means for the safety of the public and the safety of athletes and support staff who may not have a voice or a choice about when they come back.
Some sports journalists and media outlets have already embraced their new role and responsibilities. They’ve dived into the complexities at the intersection of sports and Covid-19. They’ve gone beyond “when” and asked what needs to happen before sports resume, what medical experts say and what risks games in empty arenas pose. And they’ve done it in a variety of ways, from explanatory pieces that quote epidemiologists and public health officials to columns that consider ethical questions to tick-tocks that examine past decisions about sports events and serve as cautionary tales.
Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a simple, but effective Q & A that asked: “So couldn’t games be played without fans and just be broadcast on television?” “What’s the big deal about a couple of dozen people on a basketball court?” “How should decisions about whether to resume play be made?” The answers explained some of the logistics, primarily how even games in empty stadiums involve more than teams, officials, and broadcasters, around 240 people total according to an estimate by Germany’s top soccer league. Many other sports pieces have taken a similar approach, deferring to medical and public health experts to provide perspective. It’s clear that sports leaders are not the best authorities to quote.
Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone recently looked at return-to-play scenarios from the athlete’s perspective, particularly black athletes. He raised medical and ethical issues and athlete concerns that should give any sports leader pause. He placed the financially-motivated desire to “proceed as usual” with college football on a continuum of that sport’s exploitation of black stars. At the end of the piece, Blackistone wrote, “no one is worth sacrificing for our return to some normalcy.” Unfortunately, in light of the eagerness of Trump and some college football coaches, that’s now the kind of reminder sports columnists need to clearly convey.
Without games, there’s also the opportunity to examine the decision-making before the coronavirus shut down live sports events. Two recent stories — a tick-tock in the Indianapolis Star and a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Seattle Times — illustrate what the sports world and the public at large can learn from the very recent past. The Indianapolis Star feature documented how “the hottest ticket in the state for high school basketball” likely became a super-spreader event. The ProPublica/Seattle Times piece details what happened behind the scenes before 33,000 hugging, high-fiving fans gathered for a pro soccer match against the recommendation of public health officials in Washington state. It’s a disturbing look at how sports executives in Seattle put their interests ahead of public health, how concerns about optics and talking points dominated internal communications.
Both stories leave the reader with one overriding question: Given what the reporting describes, how can the sports world make more informed, more responsible decisions in the future? These days, it’s part of the sports journalist’s public service role to ensure those questions get asked and analyzed with the public’s best interests in mind. To do that, they need to chronicle and investigate what happens behind closed doors where a different kind of sports bubble often exists.
As with most pandemic responses, the system works better when everyone buys in and takes the same approach. If it’s piecemeal, if caution and restraint and proper perspective and medical expertise and accurate information and data are the exception, then there’s the risk that all the talk about games coming back next month or the month after will cause the public to take Covid-19 less seriously.
When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11 and NBA commissioner Adam Silver quickly suspended play in the NBA, the public saw how seriously the coronavirus should be taken. The NBA’s response started a wave of pro and college sports cancellations and big event postponements and school closures and, eventually, shelter-at-home orders. Sports and sports coverage have the ability to lead in that way. During the pandemic, news organizations and sports journalism should always keep that in mind.