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Keith Strudler: Pro Sports In Quarantine

Generally speaking, this is normally the time of the year I start paying attention to the NBA. It’s not that I don’t like pro basketball, it’s just that with so many games and a post season that lasts longer than the full run of Mash, it’s hard to get too excited about the lion’s share of the regular season. But now that college basketball would have finished and football’s still a long way off, this is time when I typically start to tune in.

Obviously that’s not the case this year, when watching basketball either means your kids in the driveway or old games running on ESPN. I did tune in last Friday when a bunch of NBA players had a basketball video game tournament, which to be clear I found essentially unwatchable. The most exciting part was getting to see the inside of everyone’s house. But otherwise, it’s no basketball, all of the time. Same goes for baseball, hockey, spring football, and anything else that’s supposed to be playing now or in the near future. The commissioners of our four major sports met last week to address just that issue. Of course, that meeting was convened by President Trump, an unfortunate reality that both mutated its purpose and ruined its potential efficacy and nuance. Like pretty much everything that demands delicate intention, Trump brought an industrial hammer and a delusional perspective.

So leave anything Trump said about that conversation aside. It’s completely irrelevant whether he wants the NFL open for business in September. As we’re all learning, the virus has a schedule that seems completely independent of the musings of this or any other madman. But the commissioners, both collectively and independently, are talking about when, where, and how they might start playing ball. The NFL has the most leeway in the conversation. Their regular season doesn’t begin until late summer, and it has clear wiggle room to push a few weeks here or there. The other leagues have less luxury. The NBA and NHL stopped dead in their tracks, and baseball ended before it even began, leaving pitchers and catchers as the only ones who likely got even a few good reps. Each of these commissioners is trying to come up with the semblance of a plan of how they might play games to either start or complete a season, and do so without getting a whole lot of people gravely ill.

For the time being, there’s a few ideas being floated, none of them resembling anything we’re used to. Baseball is considering quarantining all athletes in Arizona and playing a season in a bunch of empty spring training stadiums, perhaps starting as early as May. It’s not entirely feasible, since athletes haven’t bought into the idea of leaving their families behind for four months. And there’s the Arizona summer heat, of course. The NHL is considering resuming their season in North Dakota, where social distancing seems basically a normal way of life. And the NBA is considering the same in Las Vegas, where they could basically take over a resort and a couple of gyms. Think of it as the League taking up residency, like of like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey. None of these ideas are passed the conceptual phase, and none of them involve a live audience, which might make for rough TV. Then again, I’d watch someone running on treadmill right now if it felt competitive.

A lot of people will criticize these commissioners for even having this conversation about how and when their respective businesses can resume. For many, there is nothing essential about playing sports for entertainment purposes, particularly if it puts anyone in harm’s way. I do understand that perspective, which is why I don’t see anyone kicking off anytime soon. But I would say this. Talking about playing professional sports, while not essential and certainly not the same as saving lives and ending the pandemic, isn’t ridiculous nor grotesque, as some might suggest. Leave aside the fiscal impact of professional sport in the US, or whether rich folks lose a year of salary, which to the average American feels insulting right now. The reason to have this conversation is because at some point, we should consider things that bring us joy and comfort, things that make this universal exercise more sustainable. Things that, for many people, are part of the fabric of life. That’s what sport is, beyond just being a big show played by wealthy super stars. So if there’s a safe way to bring that collective experience into our separated lives, it seems worth a conversation. And it would be even more worth it if Trump weren’t there.

And maybe, just maybe, we can all start paying attention to the NBA. It would be a welcomed diversion.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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