Major sports should be benched for the season to run out the clock on pandemic

Ask yourself: who doesn’t love sports, and if that’s the case, what’s wrong?

I don’t play much of anything well anymore. But . . . watching them.

Watching sports is a wondrous trance, a vicarious visitation of ambitious earlier life, awe at the effort and achievement and even the failure. I willingly kill gorgeous and horrible weather days alike, evenings I could socialize, late afternoons where I would be wiser to tidy the to-do list at the office, off-hours I might sleep but instead accommodate time zones – all in the service of a televised game. In-person events, even better.

Which is why I am torn today in the pandemic, missing my medicinal dosage of hockey, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis, on and on. I would so love them back, yet as I watch the major leagues’ survival mechanisms to salvage seasons, award championships, perpetuate businesses and satisfy me among hundreds of millions, I admit I wish they wouldn’t compromise so.

Major league sports are acting as if they can surmount what other businesses, institutions and most of us recognize they cannot at the moment. We are in a more failing than succeeding phase of living with coronavirus, doubtful for the time being of an imminent vaccine or a marvel anti-viral drug. We will be keeping our distance for some time, negotiating space, accepting compromises in our lives, and budgeting encounters to mitigate risk. 

So really, is it necessary to push hockey into their playoffs, basketball into season-concluding games and their own playoffs, soccer players into a little-meaning tournament, baseball into a miniaturized year, football teams into a part-season here and a full-blown one below the border? To what end are these means?

Sports are sufficiently dangerous on their own. A professional career is typically short as it is. We are about to compound the threats with illness. Respiratory systems, often a major difference in their athleticism, are clearly jeopardized by COVID-19’s symptoms. 

Why do we need our fix at their possible expense? Are we really entitled to this for our behaviour?

In every instance – the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Football League, the Canadian Football League – the plans to resume play in the days and weeks to come are obviously fraught and wishfully thought. 

We are told to socially distance; the games encourage contact and engender any virus in their midst. Players, coaches, team staff and their families are stumbling into preparation to resume or start their seasons with the coronavirus among them. 

We know the case numbers are growing across all sports, although for privacy purposes we do not know with whom. The local Whitecaps don’t even have a team to play this week in the Major League Soccer tournament, so infected is FC Dallas that it cannot field a squad. 

The organizations face months of isolation to satisfy not the need for finality of some athletic achievement but of their crass covenant with television networks starved for content. The smart ones, with enough financial wherewithal to have agency, are sitting out. 

Team bubbles, competition hubs, expanded and diluted rosters, altered rules, emptied arenas: aren’t these ingredients evidence of desperate unreadiness and the illusion of a reward we may not yet deserve?

If they can survive the compromised situation, the spectacle will be a saturated sports market: an unprecedented collision of schedules in hockey, basketball, baseball and soccer within the month, then football as those other four sports conclude one season and soon start the next, all day and night for months. 

I have found intriguing the Bundesliga without fans – yay, Alphonso Davies – if only to hear the players call for the ball or for coaches to chide them about their defensive game. And I suppose the professional golfers can’t complain now about audience distractions, save Bryson DeChambeau.

But I know that fans in the stands are what makes a home team successful, serves as a tangible barometer for a city’s mood and identity, and that a televised empty stadium is an abstract version of the realism necessary to engage with sport. The experience has the difference of live theatre and a movie.

Yes, call me a hypocrite, because as a sports fan, I’m not going to boycott. But I suspect those on the screen will get sick before those watching it. Is it worth cutting a career short because we couldn’t sit out a year?

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.