There’s a contrast at the core of what sports — let’s use that umbrella term to refer to the major professional leagues on this continent and the people who direct and compete within them — will try to do over the next couple of weeks. Sports will try to return, in as normal and stable a structure as it can build, even though the coronavirus has reconfigured just about all the structures we have, if not melted them down into liquid iron.
Major League Baseball will try to play a 60-game regular season, then a postseason. The NHL will hold round-robin tournaments among its top four teams in each of the two conferences to determine their seeding for a 16-team playoff tournament. The NBA will go with an eight-game warm-up before commencing with its postseason. Major League Soccer is attempting to hold 51 matches in 26 days among 25 teams. The NFL, for now, will sit back and watch and take notes.
There have been and will be bubbles — when sports is indoors, that is. Franchises and leagues and broadcast networks will implement artificial measures to simulate the atmosphere and feel of pre-pandemic games. On the same day that Philadelphia officials erroneously announced that the city government would not allow fans to attend any professional sporting events in 2020, the Phillies provided a glimpse of what an average night at Citizens Bank Park this summer might look and sound and feel like.
For an intrasquad game, Dan Baker announced the starting lineup to a mostly empty ballpark. Andrew McCutchen pretended to slap his teammates’ hands. Walk-up songs and organ music echoed. Scott Kingery hit a home run, and the ball didn’t disappear silently and softly into a field of outstretched hands. It clanked against the hard, plastic chairs in the right-field stands. Once the season begins, cardboard cutouts of people will fill those seats.
And there, right there, is the contrast. Fake crowds. Fake crowd noise. Fake high fives. Real competition. Real risk. Real ramifications. That contradiction raises a profound question as the games resume: What exactly are we asking of these athletes once sports comes back, and are they equipped to handle it?
We often leave unmentioned the danger inherent in sports. The allure of the games that we watch and play is two-pronged: They show us the limitless capacity of human potential — toughness, endurance, grace under pressure — and they do so, generally speaking, without requiring the competitors to put their lives on the line. (This distinction is why comparisons of sports to war always ring hollow.) But we also shouldn’t minimize the hazards that those who have reached sports’ highest and most demanding levels confront each time they slip on shoulder pads or grab a bat.
Several times each game, an NFL offensive lineman might experience a collision that carries the G-force of a car crash in which the vehicle was traveling at 30 mph. A major-league batter standing 60 feet, 6 inches from a pitcher has between 425 and 450 milliseconds to recognize that the pitcher has thrown a 95-mph fastball, that the fastball is targeted for his head, and that he must hit the dirt. An NHL player straps knives to his feet, carries a long stick with a blade that he himself has sharpened, and must always be aware that an opponent wielding the same combat accessories might stab or slice him samurai-style or check him headfirst into Plexiglass walls.
Withstand those conditions and those risks for long enough, make them part of your daily routine, thrive amid them, and a feeling of being indestructible, of being more than mortal, sets in.
“There’s no question,” said former NFL offensive lineman Barrett Brooks, who played for four teams, including the Eagles, over his 11 years in the league. “I used to make a joke of it: People would ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Well, I choke 400-pound men.’ I could do anything. For 10 yards, I was as fast as anybody in the country — Carl Lewis, anybody. For those 10 yards. Now past that, 10½, I don’t know. But for 10 yards, I was as explosive as a track guy.”
But the pandemic upends the notion that it is a good thing — and more than that, a necessary thing — for an elite athlete to believe that he or she is bulletproof. When Donovan McNabb throws four touchdown passes on a broken ankle, when Carson Wentz throws one on a torn-up knee, when Willis Reed hobbles out to the court for Game 7, they inspire their teammates and their teams’ fans. They stand tall and perform despite pain. They overcome adversity. They show themselves to be unselfish.
Try to be that brave and tough these days, try to project strength and appear indomitable around the court or the ballpark or the rink, and you won’t inspire your teammates, but you might infect them.
Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere spent 16 seasons in the NHL as a player, and his career would have been longer if not for a couple of minor complications: He took two slap shots to the face, one in 2009, one in 2010, the second of which left him with a bruised brain and post-concussion symptoms and caused nerve damage to his right eye. So Laperriere’s bona fides as a first-team all-heart guy are well established. Yet he is also a husband and a father of two sons, and he acknowledged in a recent interview that he’s concerned that too many NHL players who have the same mentality he did will apply it where it doesn’t apply: the safety of themselves and others vis-à-vis COVID-19.
“We’re going to have to wear masks,” he said. “We can’t shake hands. We’ve got to get tested three times a week during camp, and when we get to the hub cities, I think it’s going to be every day. If we don’t do that, we’re not going to play. People are not doing it out there, and it’s one of the reasons the virus doesn’t want to go away. We have to do that. We have to do the right thing.
“Hockey players sometimes feel like they’re invincible. You’re tough. You’re this. You’re that. And it might get in your mind, ‘Hey, I’m going to shake that virus off like nothing.’ Hopefully, that won’t be the case. I played a pretty tough game and felt like I’m invincible, but I’m 46 now, and I’ve got a family. I’m not invincible.”
That’s what the virus does and has done. It turns courage (such as it exists on a playing field) into caution, sending into hyperdrive a trend — a greater understanding and acceptance that athletes should do what they can to conserve their bodies and protect their health — that has been accelerating anyway.
“It is more acceptable to be injured,” said former Eagles fullback Jon Ritchie, now a host on WIP-FM. “People don’t expect you to play through everything as you once did. Concussions started the ball rolling in that direction. I have often wished I had been less gung-ho and stupid with my own body. I see players being more conservative and erring on the side of caution. It certainly was not installed in the athlete lexicon when I was playing. It’s more important than ever that a player, if he has a sniffle, alert everyone and protect everyone in that clubhouse or locker room.”
Here’s something else the virus does: It takes all the aspects of life away from sports, all the elements or “distractions” that an athlete is supposed to cast aside once the game begins — his or her family and friends, the triumphs and troubles of his or her daily existence — and shoves them right to the front of the athlete’s mind.
It’s unlikely that fear of contracting COVID-19 would give a player pause in the middle of a contest; no athlete is wired that way. “You can’t not play,” said Brooks, who works as an analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. “You have to go full speed.”
But several athletes in various sports have decided that the threat of exposure isn’t a risk worth taking, and others wake up every morning knowing that they have to weigh the benefits against the possible costs.
Take Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler. His wife, Dominique, is due with their first child at the end of the month. In a non-coronavirus world, with all other things being equal, Wheeler would take his regular turn in the rotation and wait until it was time for him to leave the team and be with Dominique. He would sit next to his teammates in the dugout or shake their hands after pitching seven shutout innings, and he wouldn’t give it a second thought.
Now? Now every second Wheeler spends at Citizens Bank Park presumably increases the chance, however slight, that he might contract COVID-19 himself or carry the virus back to his home. Is he selfish, a bad teammate, if he doesn’t take that risk? Or is he selfish, a bad husband and prospective father, if he does?
“It’s a very difficult decision, something that I’m still playing in my head,” he said. “I’ve got to be very careful here at the field, outside of the field, wherever I go. The baby’s and Dominique’s health is most important to me. So whatever I can do to make sure they’re safe, that’s the number-one goal for me. Baseball comes after that.”
In some ways, of course, baseball is the easiest of the sports for athletes to navigate during the pandemic. Every game can be played outdoors, which should mitigate the virus’ spread, and though the batter, the catcher, and the home-plate umpire are clustered on every pitch, baseball has what former manager Bobby Valentine calls “built-in social distancing” among the other players and umpires on the field.
The sports in which the athletes are indoors and in closer and more frequent contact, such as basketball and hockey, present different challenges and arguably more peril. Wheeler must be careful around his wife and unborn baby, but at least he is able to interact with them in person. NBA players within the Orlando bubble and NHL players sequestered in the league’s two hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, don’t have even that modest luxury. Already, Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans’ star rookie, has left to attend to what the team described as “an urgent family matter.”
From those who wish to compete, a different measure of discipline, a lack of personal freedom, will be required. For instance, former Sixers center Richaun Holmes, now with the Sacramento Kings, exited the bubble for a less-pressing reason than Williamson’s. He went to pick up an order of takeout food. He has been placed in quarantine, and he provided early validation of a recent assertion by the Sixers’ Joel Embiid, who didn’t trust that every NBA player would abide by the rules of isolation.
“I know myself,” he said. “I know I’m not going to put everybody else at risk. But the question is, is everybody else going to do the same? Being around this business, I surely don’t think so.”
Embiid made the same point in an exaggerated manner on the day he traveled to Orlando, arriving for his flight clad in a white hazmat suit. It was a hilarious sight, but it also cast in stark relief the choice that every athlete in every sport has had or will have to make — and the gravity of that choice. Put it this way: It’s a safe bet that, over the month he spent stricken with and recovering from COVID-19, losing his senses of taste and smell and seeing his body temperature rise, Kingery wasn’t worrying first and foremost about his team’s postseason prospects or the incentive clauses in his contract.
“I play in a city that’s tough, and I consider myself being tough,” Embiid said. “You look at the way I play the games: physical, getting to the free-throw line. I’m not going to give up that easy. But if you told me the current trend was a lot of people getting sick and people dying, obviously you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk for just, what, the money?