Easy to say ‘play ball’ when it’s not your health on the line

How can the games return safely? It’s the question that won’t go away. Answer: It’s a roll of the dice.

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NFL fans might have to deal with the season being halted if there is a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

NFL fans might have to deal with the season being halted if there is a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Sports fans want sports back. They want bats and balls, wide receivers and one-handed catches, hockey sticks and missing teeth.

But how can the games return safely?

It’s the question that won’t go away, even as the major sports leagues formulate detailed plans to begin play in the face of the pandemic.

The many unknowns of the coronavirus do not allow for a simple answer. All the mandates proclaimed, all the safeguards put in place, all the best practices followed — and it’s still a roll of the dice.

How many major-league baseball players testing positive for COVID-19 per team would it take for the season to be shut down? One? Two? Five? How about players who have to be hospitalized? Would one player on a ventilator be enough of a bad look to close up shop for everyone?

This is the uncomfortable calculus that leagues surely are considering.

It’s risk/reward played at a very human level. It’s the risk of players getting sick vs. the reward of players and owners continuing to get rich, as well as the reward of a society getting a much-needed psychological break from the virus. The risk is why some baseball players, including Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, want to take the discussion of a season start-up slowly.

It’s kind of hard to socially distance from an opponent who is sliding into you at second base.

If the NFL starts its season and a second wave of the coronavirus hits the country in the fall, the odds of evil droplets being exchanged by large men tackling each other would seem to be high. The thought of a carrot being dangled in front of NFL fans and then taken away is a cruel one. But it could happen.

What would be worse: life with no sports while we let the virus run its course or a return of sports followed by another shutdown caused by players and staff getting sick? I’d go with Door No. 2. It would be crushing.

I do know that we, as a culture, are desperate to be spectating again, even if it’s in front of a television until stadiums are open to fans again. Hell, we’d watch a stick-figure re-enactment of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals if it were all we had. ESPN’s recent Michael Jordan documentary, a huge ratings hit, was both a reflection of his enduring popularity and the country’s intense longing for sports. Not to mention massive stir craziness.

It’s the documentary that has launched a thousand sports-talk discussions, follow-up shows, newspaper columns and former Bull-on-former Bull trash talk. We need our sports like we need our air.

But how can I ask this gently? Are you more willing to allow games to be played knowing that it’s not you or your loved ones who would possibly be exposed to COVID-19? Are you looking at it as a Day at the Colosseum, in which the athletes are the condemned, the virus is the bloodthirsty lions and we are the cheering crowd?

It’s easy for me to say the sports leagues should start up, regardless of the risk. I wouldn’t be the one trading sweat with other athletes and opening myself up to a date with an intensive-care nurse. Underneath it all, isn’t that the national attitude toward watching the NFL anyway? We know that more than a few of the players aren’t going to live long lives because of the effects of brain trauma caused by the game, yet we put that aside and watch enthusiastically. It’s not our gray matter getting bruised, after all.  

Start a discussion about sports in the time of the coronavirus, and you always come back to the “how’’ of it. It’s not about ethics. It’s about logistics. How are sports leagues going to play games without there being transmission of the virus?

You’re basically asking everyone involved to behave. Human history has dropped by to inform us, “Good luck with that!’’ It’s why Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been reluctant to reopen the lakeshore, knowing that some people would not abide by social-distancing rules, thus increasing the possibility of further spread of the virus. A few people ruining it for everyone else.

You can have daily temperature taking and regular testing at team facilities, but all it takes is one unwiped surface, one unmasked moment, one dirty hotel room or one player playing the field off the field for a team to have a corona-

virus problem.

Yet, the blow of basketball or hockey being shut down a second time would have a devastating psychological effect on the country.

There’s no easy answer.

Be very afraid of the person who says there is.

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