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Keith Strudler: Taking To The Field?

When it comes to sports these days, or really life, perhaps the most important word is plan. Like the NBA has a plan to have teams in a quasi-bubble in Disney World to finish the season. And baseball is trying to figure out a plan for a 60-game season played across the country. But you know what they used to say. Everyone’s got a plan about how to beat Mike Tyson until they get punched in the face.

Well, right now, a lot of sports organizations are getting punched in the face as they try to restart. For some, it’s the reality that it’s really hard to keep athletes from contracting Covid, even in highly individual sports where spread is a bit less likely. Take golf, for example, where two players on the PGA Tour tested positive, including one who already finished the first round of a tournament. Or tennis, where the world’s number one ranked Novak Djokovic just tested positive after a tennis exhibition event he hosted in Croatia. Which means 14 days in quarantine.

That said, these sports have it easy compared to their team counterparts. Like Major League Baseball, where some 40 players and team staff have recently tested positive, and the League is now skipping Florida spring training altogether because of outbreaks in the ballparks there and, well, Florida. It’s being reported that a significant number of NBA players are testing positive in their first round of tests in preparing to bring most of the teams in for their playoff tournament. And college football teams can’t even get teams back to campus for summer drills without having to quarantine. Clemson had 23 football players test positive. Texas had 10. And defending champs LSU had a whopping 30 positive tests. And that’s before they started practicing together. Imagine what it’s going to be like once they actually reduce their social distance.

Obviously, this will have implications on whether or not both professional and amateur sports happen this summer and fall. Beyond those sports and events that have already cancelled – like the NYC Marathon did today – we can’t really predict whether or how sports might actually proceed, regardless of their well laid plans. At the very least, we are learning that it’s going to be really, really hard – I’d actually prefer the word impossible – to keep Covid completely out of any team, sport, or league. Barring some miracle where the disease fades away, athletes are going to bring coronavirus into their fields and arenas – and either leave for two weeks because they test positive or, more likely, spread it to teammates and opponents before that happens. Either way, it’s no way to run a business. Now they do seem to have a bit more success so far in Europe with soccer, but this is America, where Covid is as ubiquitous as fast food and reality television.

So what are we to do? Should we cancel all sports now, especially college and youth sports, and wait until we have something approaching a vaccine? Do we send all the athletes home to stay fit until next fall? Not being anything approaching a medical expert, I can’t even begin to answer this questions with any form of precision. But I will share this.

On Tuesday, my 12-year-old went to his first socially distanced soccer practice – his first team practice of any kind in nearly four months after cancelling the spring season. It wasn’t like a normal practice. They all stood like 10 feet from each other and did drills, passed the ball, did a little running, and basically avoided all the things that approximate real soccer. Like getting near each other to play for the ball. I asked him how practice was, and mind you, he’s an almost 13-year-old boy for whom “okay” is the highest compliment. And when I asked him, he said practice was “good.” Good, mind you. He might say dinner at Le Bernardin is all right, yet he called a sports practice where they couldn’t really do sports good.

That is what we’ve been missing, and might continue to miss this fall. The opportunity for athletes – in this case, kids – to be together, work together, in the name of sport. That, more than anything, is why I really, really hope sport can return. Not just so I can watch the NBA finals, or the SEC Championship, but so 12 year olds can have a sense of normalcy amidst everything that isn’t.

Should teams play this fall? I don’t know. But I hope that with all these plans in place, some of them actually work.

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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