What a long strange trip it’s been.
Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
This isn’t really news by now, but the first two weeks of the NFL season have made it explicit: In sports, the pandemic is over. The stands are full, sure, but that’s been the case for a while. What is telling is that the Delta surge hasn’t messed with the football schedule one whit — even as cases have surged throughout the late summer, and even as more than 2,000 Americans are now dying of the virus every day. For all the talk of teams being forced to forfeit over COVID outbreaks — opposed to 2020, when the game was either postponed or canceled entirely — there hasn’t been a single NFL or college football game so far that hasn’t been played as scheduled. (Even the Ivy League, which hadn’t played a game since November 2019, got going last weekend.) Major League Baseball hasn’t had a postponement since July 28, and that game was rescheduled for the very next day. (It helps when 80 percent or more of your players are vaccinated.) We are in the thick of the sports schedule right now — football and soccer are gearing up, baseball and the WNBA are winding down, hockey and the NBA are just about to get started — and the idea that COVID is going to stop, or even slow down, any of it has essentially vanished as any point of serious consideration. Notwithstanding some new killer variant, there isn’t a sports league that doesn’t think the worst is long over.
Whenever the COVID-19 pandemic is actually over, in, like, the real world — even if “over” just means it’s endemic and we’ve all just learned to live with it — there will be countless discussions of the lessons we’ve learned, and not learned, in the wake of the worst public-health crisis in a century. If the pandemic is as over in sports as everyone involved is acting, there should be some takeaways from this entire wrenching process. So what have we learned, just in case, you know we ever come across another one of these?
One of the starkest parts of the Alex Gibney documentary Totally Under Control, which chronicles the Trump administration’s disastrous reaction to the pandemic, features Chinese doctors treating the first COVID-19 patients. The sick are basically handled like uranium: Health professionals don layer upon layer of protective gear and the patient is treated like they’re radioactive. By the end of the film, a COVID-positive President Trump is taking joyrides with his Secret Service agents. We adjust to the world around us, is what I’m saying. The NBA famously shut down on March 11, 2020, when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive before a game, and didn’t play again until July 30, inside the Orlando bubble. There were no positive tests there, but there were plenty during the next season before vaccinations were widespread — and not a single game was delayed. Heck, Major League Baseball waited four months to start its 2020 season … and by the end of it, the Dodgers’ Justin Turner, mere minutes after a positive test, was celebrating (maskless) with his teammates after winning the World Series. Shutting games down entirely was a drastic measure taken in an absence of information, one that cost leagues billions and billions of dollars. It’s difficult to imagine them going that route so hastily again, unless we’re staring down the apocalypse. And maybe not even then.
The difference between last year’s fan-less games and this year’s 90,000-screaming-college-football-lunatics games is dramatic, both on and off the field. The games are more fun to watch, and the players are clearly having the time of their lives; it’s clear they missed the fans, and fed off of them. But in a financial sense, the level of pain depended on the league involved. The NFL was able to mostly mitigate its losses thanks to its heavy reliance on television money; by playing a full schedule, they were able to make good on their contracts, thus limiting the damage. Universities lost out on gate revenue for their sports, but their money is increasingly coming from television contracts now as well. Sports like MLB, which rely more on ticket sales and local revenue, were probably hurt the most (though just how badly baseball was damaged isn’t publicly available information, and is the sort of thing that will be litigated, in quite bloody fashion, when its labor fight commences this off-season). Ticket and concession revenue will always be important to leagues and teams, but the pandemic proved that they can in fact survive if it those sources are suddenly, unexpectedly ripped away from them — as long as the television inventory is sufficiently supplied. Even deep into the streaming era, television is where the money is. Having gone fan-less will increase the doubling down on broadcast rights, not diminish it.
One must be extremely careful in drawing any short- or long-term conclusions on how COVID affects the health of those who have contracted it. But way back in June 2020, I wrote that the only thing that would stop sports from continuing would be the death of an active player from COVID-19. There were high-school athletes who died of virus, including one just last month in Tennessee. But no athletes in any of the major professional or high-level collegiate sports died, or even unable to return after battling the virus. (Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who suffered from myocarditis after contracting COVID-19 last year, returned in 2021 and has been one of Boston’s key pitchers.) This does not mean that leagues can just let viruses, future and present, run rampant, or that they can stop mitigation strategies. But it’s difficult to argue that the lack of player deaths won’t influence the views of both teams and players on how to deal with issues like this in the future. Athletes already feel like they are indestructible. For better or worse, COVID is unlikely to dissuade them from that notion.
No league, so far anyway, has instituted a full vaccine mandate for its players, thanks largely to players unions that are hesitant to allow leagues any more power over athletes. But the powers that be have made life considerably more difficult for those who choose to remain unvaccinated, whether it meant the threat of being cut for a vaccinated player or being subjected to testing and safety protocols that vaccinated players weren’t. All this has made obvious headway in getting players to seek their shots. The education of players about the virus and the vaccines — often by those same players unions — has helped as well. Sixty-four percent of American adults have received at least one shot. The NFL was at 93 percent before the season began; the vast majority of MLB teams are at least 85 percent vaccinated; the NBA was at 90 percent two months ago; the WNBA was at a stunning 99 percent in June. Put it this way: 51 percent of Mississippi adults are fully vaccinated; 100 percent of University of Mississippi football players are.
Most schools and NFL teams are not requiring vaccine requirements to attend games, but a few are. So far — and it’s early — there appears to be no difference in attendance between stadiums that require proof of vaccination and those who do not. And it’s worth noting that since football season started, vaccination rates have risen in Georgia, Florida, and Texas, states widely criticized for not joining states like Washington, California, and Louisiana in requiring proof of vaccination, and case rates have gone down. That may have nothing to do with sports, but sports hasn’t made things worse either.
One of the central arguments against sports restarting last year even as the pandemic raged on was that baseball, basketball, and all the rest would “normalize” a return to regular life, thus encouraging people to take more risks and prolonging the pandemic. It’s nearly impossible to argue this was the case; there has been no meaningful correlation between cases and deaths with the return of sports — save for untested theories that the U.K.’s Delta numbers rose with the Euro 2020 soccer tournament this summer.
Like a lot of people, I’ve found that, during the pandemic, I savored sports more than I ever have. As with many things, I didn’t appreciate what I had until it was taken away. This newfound gratitude will fade, of course. But regardless …
It’s tough to envision a more difficult crisis for the sports industrial complex to weather than a global pandemic involving a virus that’s spread through the air. But it turns out that, for the most part, they they handled it just fine. We’re all still watching, people are coming out to the games even though the virus is, in fact, still spread through the air, and everybody’s still making money. I wondered, back in March 2020, if sports would ever be the same again. That’ll be the last time I ever wonder that.