1 year after shutdown, sports industry continues risky push to return to old normal

·6 min read
The NBA's all-star game, held Sunday in Atlanta without fans in the building, stands in stark contrast to a recent heavyweight bout in New Zealand which drew a sold-out, filled-to-capacity crowd less than one year since sports across the world shut down due to the pandemic. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press - image credit)
The NBA's all-star game, held Sunday in Atlanta without fans in the building, stands in stark contrast to a recent heavyweight bout in New Zealand which drew a sold-out, filled-to-capacity crowd less than one year since sports across the world shut down due to the pandemic. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On the last Saturday in February, Joseph Parker and Junior Fa engaged in a fairly hard-fought, fairly high-stakes, but otherwise unremarkable heavyweight boxing match.

Parker, a two-time world title challenger seeking a third shot at a major belt, pressed the action, belting Fa's body and scoring points for activity, if not accuracy. And Fa, six-foot-five and previously undefeated, rattled Parker when he connected, but almost never followed up. Instead he employed hit-and-hug tactics reminiscent of former heavyweight champ John Ruiz, whose style was about as spicy as a tub of vanilla ice cream.

What stood out about Parker's 12-round decision win was the atmosphere. A loud-cheering crowd in an indoor arena sold out and filled to its normal capacity. There were no seating pods to ensure social distancing, no face masks and no virtual fans. These were all real people, shouting at full volume, even though we know close-quarters yelling is an efficient way to spread an airborne virus.

The fight card seemed to have come to us from the pre-COVID past — except the event happened in real time, in New Zealand, where aggressive countermeasures since the dawn of the pandemic have slowed COVID-19 transmission to a trickle.

A contrarian might point out that the day after Parker-Fa, a new COVID-19 case in Auckland prompted a week-long lockdown in New Zealand's biggest city, but that's the point. Early, aggressive intervention continues to pay off, and New Zealanders have resumed somewhat normal sports lives. Down there, the single-day case count has never broken 90, and they're averaging four new cases per day this week. With numbers that low, boxing, Rugby Union and Netball can all unfold before live audiences without fear of any single game becoming a superspreader event.

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A year after the World Health Organization officially declared a COVID-19 pandemic, those snapshots from New Zealand feel like glimpses into an alternate reality. It's a look at what might have been if we in North America had taken this pandemic more seriously instead of politicizing everything from masks, to vaccines, to settling for takeout from restaurants until it's safe to gather indoors in big numbers again.

Instead, the pro sports industry continues to push to return to the old normal before medical science and shared responsibility to fellow citizens can bring this virus under control.

A year ago this week, a positive COVID-19 test from Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert served notice that pro sports weren't immune to this new disease, which had only been identified late in 2019. The league suspended play March 11, when 245 new cases were identified nationwide. A day later, when teammate Donovan Mitchell tested positive, the U.S. recorded 405 new cases.

Nearly 12 months later, the league held its all-star game, with around 1,500 fans in person, in Atlanta on Sunday, a day more than 40,000 Americans tested positive. The week preceding the all-star break saw the Raptors — playing in Tampa this season because COVID-19 has severely restricted border crossings — postpone one game and play another two short-handed because of positive tests and contact tracing.

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The NFL pressed through full regular season and playoff schedules. That the league kept rolling even as more than 700 players and staff tested positive was spun as a triumph, instead of a sign it wasn't quite safe to conduct business as usual.

Various sports organizations with upcoming seasons have announced plans to welcome spectators back into venues at varying capacity levels. Major League Baseball's website keeps a constantly updating list of teams and in-person attendance limits for 2021, while the University of Alabama has announced plans for unrestricted ticket sales at 101,821 seat Bryant-Denny Stadium for football this fall.

These decisions highlight how little we've chosen to learn since last March.

Money talks

Teams aren't trying to fill their stadiums this fall because, like our friends in New Zealand, they recognize vigilance has driven the risk of a new outbreak to almost nil. Canada added more than 3,000 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, with 1,631 coming in Ontario alone. In the U.S., the new case count more than doubled overnight, hitting more than 98,000 on March 8.

Organizers are bringing fans back to venues for the money. TV makes all these leagues run — cancelling the Ravens-Steelers game first scheduled for U.S. Thanksgiving reportedly would have cost broadcaster NBC roughly $70 million US in ad revenue. If leagues eliminate big swaths of their schedules, they jeopardize billions in broadcast revenue.

But they clearly also miss the money they make selling tickets and beer and game-day trinkets. Sold-out stadiums also signal a return to whatever normal will be, because pandemic fatigue is real, and a lot of people feel we've been socially distancing and mask-wearing and obsessively washing our hands long enough. It's an understandable sentiment. We all want to move around freely again and visit with friends and family without breaking a by-law or risking triggering another outbreak.

But the virus doesn't care what we feel is normal. It's going to spread until it mutates, then spread some more, because that's what viruses do unless we intervene. Here in Toronto, we've seen what happens when people try to return to normal just because it seems like time.

In June 2019 Kevin Durant limped into the NBA Finals on a strained calf muscle and a string of missed games. If you had seen him slow-motion strolling through Scotiabank Arena, you wouldn't have pegged him as ready to play. But this was Kevin Durant, one of the top handful of players in the NBA when healthy. And these were the NBA Finals, the most important competition in the top league in the sport. Stakes don't get higher. The schedule said it was time for Durant to play. Surely his injured tissue would understand and co-operate.

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We all saw Durant's Achilles tendon snap when he planted his foot and tried to drive to the basket early in Game 5 of that series. The injury, surgery and rehab sidelined him for all of 2019-2020, both the standard season and the summer restart on the COVID-free campus near Orlando. His calf and Achilles tendon, it turned out, didn't care about the stakes or the schedule. Whatever problems existed would only disappear with treatment.

The North American sports world could have learned from Durant's example. A full recovery beats a fast one.

Or we could look at New Zealand, where citizens and political leaders alike mobilized — or stayed home — to keep the virus from rippling through the population. A year into the pandemic, New Zealanders have full stadiums and a microscopic COVID-19 case load.

Over here, we have a rush to return to normal and hope that it all works out.

But hope isn't a strategy. It's just another gamble.