Let them play: Governors signal they're ready for sports to return sooner than later

·Columnist

Nearly 10 weeks ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver shuttered his league after a player tested positive for the coronavirus. The dominoes fell quickly afterward. The NHL and MLB suspended their seasons, the NCAA tournament was canceled and a slew of annual events — from the Kentucky Derby to the Masters — were postponed. 

Sports stopped, dead in its tracks. 

Now, it may be full steam ahead.

On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state, the hardest hit in the country, isn’t just receptive to the return of sports, but wants to partner with sports organizations to make it happen. 

“I have been encouraging major sports teams to plan reopenings without fans, but the games could be televised,” Cuomo said on Monday. “New York state will help those major sports franchises do just that. Hockey, basketball, baseball, football, whoever, can reopen. 

“We are a ready, willing and able partner.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo briefs the media during a coronavirus news conference. (AP)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo briefs the media during a coronavirus news conference. (AP)

Hours later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said pro sports could potentially return in his state “in that first week or so of June without spectators.” Then, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order allowing teams and leagues to resume starting May 31.

California has 18 franchises in the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS. Texas has 10, New York nine. Additionally, each state is home to auto racing events, major golf and tennis championships, horse racing and so on. 

This is the clearest sign yet that pro sports at least are going to have the opportunity to give this year a go. 

All the major sports leagues have designed myriad plans for reopening, but the uncertainty of local decision-making and the regional nature of the virus has complicated everything. 

Understandably, what might be allowable and reasonable in (to use the NBA as an example) little-hit Oklahoma City, would not be in New York City. 

Although there are many forces and factions in public life that want to divide and paint people with contrasting opinions and standards as evil and idiotic, divergent ideas are a good thing. Everyone wants what is best. In our big and grand country, it’s the circumstances that are different.

Now, there is some clarity and, apparently, uniformity. 

No place in America has suffered like New York. It’s home to around a quarter of all fatalities linked to COVID-19. If Cuomo is all in, then leagues should expect everywhere to follow. 

There’s already been clearance in states where the virus hasn’t been as prevalent. Arizona was a full go starting last week. North Carolina and South Carolina worked out a plan to get NASCAR rolling again (the first of four races across 11 days in the two states went off Sunday).

Florida has been willing to take just about anything. It allowed WrestleMania to be staged in an Orlando television studio on April 4-5 and the UFC to hold three cards in Jacksonville over the last couple of weeks.

Those are Southern and Western states with warm weather, prevalent sun and fewer confirmed cases. 

New York is different. And it is part of a trend. 

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told the Boston Globe he is fine with opening Fenway Park (MLB’s Red Sox) and TD Garden (NBA’s Celtics, NHL’s Bruins) for games to be played without fans, “as long as the players and the teams and the support staff ... are safe and feel comfortable.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer echoed the same optimism about games being played at her hard-hit state’s four professional franchises (and perhaps numerous college ones), just without crowds in the stands. 

“We can have sports,” Whitmer said. “Just the way we observe them might look different for a while.”

That should be good enough for sports fans. In some ways, the quiet of a spectator-less competition has provided unique insight for television viewers. 

It’d be great for everything to be back to normal with jammed arenas, but don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. It’s the same concept that if things can be done as safely as possible, then they should be attempted even if there are some positive tests as a result. 

This is about flattening a curve, not finding a cure.

The UFC pushed forward with its May 9 event even after one fighter and two team members tested positive despite asymptomatic conditions. Thus far, there has been no indication that UFC 249 produced an outbreak of the virus, although it is still within the two-week window.

There will be positive tests among athletes, coaches and personnel. That’s all but certain. It’s up to the leagues to figure out how to proceed in spite of them.

There’s been plenty of time for planning. Implementation is next. With cities and states everywhere increasingly ready for things to resume, it's go time.

“Personal disclosure, I want to watch the Buffalo Bills,” Cuomo said.

At this point, who wouldn’t? 

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