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Coolican: Sports can’t succeed without a bubble

| Friday, August 14, 2020

It pains me to write this column. It really does. As much as I have enjoyed settling into my usual summer routine of listening to baseball on the radio every night — and as much as I hope to see football this fall, sports in the United States simply can’t exist right now without a bubble environment. 

The NBA and NHL, on one hand, have both enjoyed incredibly successful returns to play within a bubble system. We can laugh all we want about Richaun Holmes being forced to quarantine for 10 days after simply picking up a Postmates delivery, or Lou Williams being restricted after going outside the bubble for hot wings, but it is the right thing to do, and it’s why the NBA hasn’t had a positive test in nearly a month. Compare that with the MLB, where nearly three weeks into the season, the Cardinals have played just 12 games — with off days already at a premium — and the Marlins had more than half their roster test positive. 

We can blame the players for not following the guidelines to the letter, or the owners and managers for not enforcing them effectively enough, but the blame has to be on the league for a system that was destined to fail from the onset. The MLB had to have known there would be positive cases. With players traveling and staying at different hotels every week and — seemingly — no way to prevent players from going out on their days off, it was inevitable. Unsurprisingly, their plan already seems to be falling apart.

There is almost no way the Cardinals will be able to make up the 13 games they have missed. Even if they play 7-inning double headers multiple times per week during the month of September, it is impossible to make up all their games because of the conflicting schedules of the teams they need to play. Not to mention, it would decimate their roster and increase risk of injury, particularly for pitchers.

The MLB has a few options here, assuming things don’t get worse. They could extend the regular season by one or two weeks, although that would probably mean no expanded playoffs, and some teams would be idle for a very long time before the playoffs. They could also accept less than 60 games for some teams, and determine the standings by winning percentage. This seems unfair in a close playoff race, but this is probably the best option. Finally, the MLB could simply cancel the Cardinals’ season, which no one wants to do, but a few more postponements and it may be the only feasible option.

College football seems unlikely to happen this year for a myriad of ethical and logistical reasons. Two Power Five conferences have already cancelled fall sports, and as much as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney can talk about how the national championship will still be just as meaningful, we all know that’s not true. Ohio State coach Ryan Day has suggested a spring season could start early in January, which may be feasible while still allowing players plenty of time to prepare for the fall season or NFL draft, but if some teams play in the fall, it will create major disparities. Some players would have a full offseason, while others would have less than two months before fall practices — and NFL camps — usually start.

Ethically speaking, even at universities that have fully reopened, can the schools really expect regular students to follow strict social distancing protocols while allowing student athletes to play a high-contact sport against athletes from across the country, all while traveling every other week? These same athletes will be in classes the next day, putting students all over the university at risk.

Even more skepticism is posed for universities that are either not reopening or have most of their classes online, yet are still planning to go ahead with fall sports. They believe it is too unsafe for students to attend classes, yet they are putting student athletes at risk by allowing them to practice, play games and travel simply because the universities need the money that football makes.

The NFL doesn’t face the same ethical dilemmas college football does, as players are free to opt out, though for less established players may not have the financial means to skip the season, and it could potentially put their roster spot in jeopardy. The NFL administration has often proven itself inept at managing issues much less complicated than a global pandemic, so there is little hope that they will come up with an effective plan to manage the season. It is unlikely that a bubble environment — or even multiple bubbles — would work with football because the fields and practice facilities are simply too large, and the roster sizes are much larger than basketball or hockey. 

Additionally, players don’t want to live in a bubble for up to six months. They all have family, friends and other responsibilities they can’t just walk away from. Three months — the amount of time a team that makes it to the NBA finals will have been in the bubble — is likely the limit. Some players were even hesitant about that. Many MLB players vehemently rejected the idea of playing in a bubble —something that was suggested at the beginning of the season. Recently, in what has been seen by some as an admission of the failure, the MLB has been discussing playing the playoffs in a bubble — something most players seem to be amenable to.

The NBA has opened discussions to hold the entire 2020-21 season in four different bubbles due to the success of this year’s endeavor, but it is unlikely that the players would agree to a whole season in that environment. The bubble concept has even caught on in college athletics. The Big East conference — among others — has even considered playing the college basketball season in a bubble. This seems even more unrealistic than the NBA playing an entire season inside bubbles. If the athletes were forced to miss classes or attend them online, it would completely sever the already-thin ties that connect “student” and “athlete.”

An option could be to complete the whole conference season over the course of a school break, as some schools are considering breaks of up to two months in between semesters in order to prepare for a potential second wave of the virus. However, with most universities planning to begin in-person instruction in mid to late January, this would involve a drastically shortened regular season, especially if conference tournaments are played in the bubble.

Obviously, these decisions are being made by people much smarter and more informed than I am, so let’s hope — for every sports fan’s sake — that I am totally wrong. Let’s hope we see Notre Dame take the field this fall, a full NFL season and the rest of the MLB’s 60-game season proceed without issues. This may well happen, but it would require a significant change in the trajectory of COVID-19 in this country. As it stands today, the chances of that seem very low.

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