Could Sports Make a Return Amid the COVID-19 Shutdowns?

For those of us who can remember, the New York Yankees played an iconic game about a month after the horrific terrorist attack on September 11th 2001. The scene in Manhattan was eerily similar to what we see almost ten years later.

“Just imagine Manhattan with no cars. Just people walking the streets. It was like it was a movie set.”

– Derek Jeter, former New York Yankees Shortstop and Hall of Famer

On March 12, the NBA was the first professional league in the U.S. to suspend its season, followed shortly by the NCAA, which canceled all remaining spring and winter championships, including both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The MLB followed by cancelling the remainder of spring training, hoping opening day in Arizona would still come. The NHL suspended its season and still is trying to decipher what will come of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The PGA postponed the Masters until November, its first major of the year. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were moved to July 2021.

The fallout of cancelling major sporting events has been well recited. Jobs were lost and many were left uncertain about when they could return to normal. Coverage and broadcasts were left without content. Fans who were isolated to their own homes lost an escape from the reality of a global pandemic.

When the idea was tossed around to let players resume games without the presence of fans, it was not met with open arms by players. Forty-one days ago, Lebron James voiced his opinion on the option for spectator-less games:

“We play games without the fans? Nah, that’s impossible, I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates, and I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. So if I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”

– Lebron James on if the NBA was to play without fans

Now, forty days after his remarks, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the country, has stated that the only way sports can return this summer is if games are in fact played without fans and players are quarantined in their hotels.

“Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled, have them tested every week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

– Dr. Anthony Fauci via Snapchat from Snapchat Original video.

No solution is ideal or simple, but various ideas have been tossed around to try to bring sporting events back. The MLB is trying to finalize a plan to bring its league to Arizona that includes a drastic plan to eliminate the traditional American and National Leagues, and readjust all six divisions for a condensed season. More specific solutions for the MLB can be read here, The MLB is in Search of a Solution to Keep Their Season from Striking Out. Even if a plan can be formulated, there is no guaranty that the MLBPA will be on board with it. Since the plan by definition would have a significant impact upon the terms and conditions of the players’ employment, it would have to be the subject of collective bargaining – meaning that the existing CBA would need to be reopened to address them.

The proposed plans to continue games present new challenges while attempting to remedy others brought upon by the delays. Players will face the difficult choices of having to remove a Phillies starting pitcher, is expecting his first child in three months and he has since explained he is not going to miss the birth of his child to play baseball. This raises the question of whether players can be quarantined in their hotels with their families.

The incentive is there. MLB players are guaranteed only 4% of their 2020 salaries. To be able to play as many games as possible is essential since their salaries will be prorated.

The proposed solution is less than ideal, but it allows games to be broadcasted again, hopefully spiking viewership and allowing TV contracts to still be fulfilled with their perspective advertising revenue to once again start flowing.

Beginning on Saturday, the UB Law Sports and Entertainment Forum will begin a multi-part series that examines various legal issues that have arisen during the shutdowns. Each day, a different topic will be discussed covering a broad range of issues. From refunding various costs of live games, NCAA recruiting and granting of additional eligibility, Title IX concerns, reopening processes and adjustments, international sporting leagues and international players making returns to their countries to play, and entertainment concerns including contractual obligations, we will cover it all. To top it off, we will examine the rise of E-Sports and streaming during a time of uncertainty.

We encourage our readers, contributors, and fellow sports fans to follow our discussions and help raise awareness of issues, solutions, and positivity during this time. We look forward to your engagement as we all navigate this uncertain landscape together.

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