COVID-19 & Sports: How Do Athletes Feel About Resuming Play?

Mark R. Bacon—Main Event DC

The current obsession over the return of all the major sports leagues focuses too much on the immense effort, complicated logistics and evolving plans to play and often omits the most basic human element: How do the athletes really feel about playing? Not just the likes of LeBron James, Mike Trout and Tom Brady, but the rank-and-file players in every sport who are weighing just as much — and probably more — when it comes to the physical, mental and financial implications of trying to come back and entertain as soon as possible?

Buried in the longing for some semblance of sports normalcy is a point we should all agree on: It’s okay if these athletes don’t have it in them to play just yet. It’s okay if they need considerable reassurance and greater clarity about their league’s safety precautions and the risks of trying to compete while the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

There’s this assumption that, because the players are young and physically fit, they will be down for whatever. Surely, most people aren’t as coldhearted and foolish as Mike Gundy, the Oklahoma State football coach/cartoon villain, in the way they think. But if you’re honest, there’s a strand of dismissiveness somewhere in your mind. It will be fine. They’re athletes, tough guys, meta-humans, right?

Throughout sports, there have been numerous reports — or intentional information leaks — about creative plans to get back to action. There doesn’t seem to be enough conversation with the entire workforce, however. It’s good that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts arranged a Friday call to give all players an open forum. It needs to happen in the NHL and Major League Baseball, too. And if multiple conference calls are required over several weeks, so be it.

The comfort of the players is essential to giving these ambitious plans the best chance of working. Their input is essential to keeping grand ideas from being crazy and embarrassing upon implementation. The decision whether to proceed or cancel is getting closer, particularly for the NBA and NHL, and the time has come to bring the conversation from private committees to the entire league. A more collaborative effort is both necessary and worthwhile.

Adam Silver seems to get that. On the other end, I’m not sure where exactly MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stands. The baseball conversation has been full of cockamamie considerations and players rolling their eyes. MLB reportedly will submit a plan to restart the season next week, possibly beginning its process of negotiation and resolution.

My concern, thinking about it from the players’ view, is that one of these leagues soon will be primed to resume, only to receive pushback from the players that turns into public backlash against the athletes. So far, they have been treated, at best, like machines during this conversation. The attention has been on league officials, television executives and lost revenue. Health experts have been included to provide a realistic and human side. But it has left the impression that the players are just waiting by their phones to receive a “Let’s go!” text from their coaches or managers. The truth is you can’t just turn them from off to on.

As business partners who also stand to lose significant money, their voice matters, too. Yet for all the rehearsed words the commissioners utter about safety being a priority, they are having to think so broadly and react so quickly to plan for the unknown that it’s impossible for them to feel the pulse of the players.

There’s a common belief in sports. It goes something like this: Everybody wants to win; everybody isn’t willing to do what it takes to win. We tend to draw a line and define competitiveness in terms of who wants to win and who burns to win.

This time, it’s different. Everybody wants to play. Everybody isn’t willing to do what it takes to play. Not until we know more about this virus and the disease it can cause. Not until testing is easily accessible. Right now, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in every decision. If that creates a level of fear and discomfort in players that ruins the chance of an expedited sports return, well, that’s life in the time of coronavirus.

If we’re being sensible, we seem a lot closer to the beginning of this sports lockdown than to the end.

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