The new scariest-word-in-the-vocabulary is “variants.” They’ve arrived in America from far-flung coronavirus capitals, such as South Africa and Brazil, and they are mutating with enough infectious potency to weaken the efficacy of vaccines that are supposed to save us. “A wakeup call,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, who really hasn’t been wrong yet.
Except you won’t hear “variants” uttered much this week in Tampa, where the NFL is throwing itself a COVID-19 victory party of sorts. Roger Goodell and the owners are ready to turn Super Bowl Sunday into a patriotic celebration of perseverance, having demonstrated how to survive a pandemic-pocked season without cancelling even one game. I can hear Jim Nantz now, gushing about the triumph of our inherent spirit and the light at the end of our dark national tunnel. Certainly, in the short term, the league should be proud of its six-month effort — which seems too good and clean to be true — while trumpeting its success in a scientific paper published by the Centers for Disease Control.
“We hope that our experience will have benefits for public health generally, and we’re pleased that the CDC was willing to engage with us on that topic,” league executive Jeff Miller said.
“We were able to show that you can play a team sport while minimizing risk to the participants,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.
The problem with all this backslapping, of course, is that it creates a false and premature narrative: an almighty sports league showing Americans how to navigate the virus landmines. In truth, the only light created was within the NFL itself. When the 32 franchises alone are worth a collective $100 billion, it isn’t too difficult to invest $100 million in the 955,000-plus daily tests that kept the schedule as coronavirus-free as possible. Confronting COVID-19 is more easily accomplished when the wealthy and privileged are driving the tanks. So let’s not shoot off fireworks and turn this into the 2021 version of a previous Americana spectacle in the same Florida city, 30 years ago, when Whitney Houston made us cry during the Persian Gulf War with the greatest national anthem of all.
Our war against the pandemic is not ending. It is just getting started.
“The road to herd immunity from the coronavirus suddenly looks longer,” the Washington Post wrote Sunday. “The emergence of more transmissible, potentially vaccine-evading variants threatens to extend the global health disaster and make 2021 feel too much like 2020. A complicated mix of good news and bad news makes any forecast for the coming months fuzzy. But scientists have one clear and sobering message: The pandemic is a long way from over.”
In that context, the NFL’s ability to reach the Super Bowl is merely a one-percenter conquest. A fraternity of owners didn’t reap their usual revenues — about $12 billion, down from last season’s $15.2 billion — but did maintain heady momentum veering into broadcast-rights negotiations that will bring staggering increases from four network partners and a streamer such as Amazon. They also can brag at their country clubs about staring down COVID-19 and winning … until next season, when the same logistical problems await if vaccines aren’t rolled out more quickly and efficiently.
And to think the sports kingdom assumed 2021 would be so much better and simpler. The calendar flipped to January, ending our annus horribilis. A presidential transition took place, an elderly man replacing a loon. George Clooney even emerged to say “we’re gonna be OK,” and, gee, we can’t thank him enough for that. So, by logical extension, we’d soon be shedding masks, attending games, launching saliva globules without shame and renewing our collective lifelong vow with sports.
Not to throw a stinkbomb on the resumption fairy tale, but as we scan the global landscape, even Sports Pollyannas are wearing Chicken Little suits. The Tokyo Olympics might be shut down and leave an eight-year gap between Rio de Janeiro and Paris. Super Bowl LV will have 48,000 empty seats swallowing 22,000 scattered fans, none allowed on the Raymond James Stadium pirate ship. The wife of the infected Russian hockey superstar, Alex Ovechkin, thinks she’s an epidemiologist and suspects a U.S. conspiracy. Basketball and hockey games are postponed by the hour, rosters decimated beyond recognition. The NBA is attempting to curb outbreaks by banning post-game hugs, even after 20-some players and three game officials spend the previous two hours sweating and breathing on each other.
Meet the new sports. Same as the old sports.
Nothing has changed, nor will it anytime soon. COVID-19 is still the house bully, or the devil, and the longer it’s allowed to rage with deadly force in 2021, the more the virus weakens an industry mechanism that can’t afford another year with few or no fans in the buildings. We’ll continue to consume pandemic sports via television and streaming, as we generally have done the past 11 months, and we’ll watch games inside massive makeshift studios until enough Americans are vaccinated to resume sociable live experiences. But what that target date is … the health experts keep pushing it back, like LeBron James’ hairline, to the point he could be as bald as Michael Jordan before the first capacity crowd is allowed inside a stadium or arena.
Months? Next year? The year after? When?
What was presumed to be a blip, and then a phase, is now the grudgingly accepted new way of sporting life. The fans have adjusted, finding the NFL conference title games in ample numbers and other leagues sporadically because, hey, what else is there to do but watch TV? Broadcast networks keep pretending the virus doesn’t exist in a hocus-pocus game with viewers. Advertisers are feeling enough buzz to keep supporting the programming inventory, to the point we’re sick of Jake from State Farm and Lily at the AT&T Store. It’s easier now making legal bets than clipping toe nails, as simple as a phone call in many states. Media sites continue to cover it all, though never more awkwardly, as if life-and-death-occupied human beings want to waste time psychoanalyzing Kyrie Irving or arguing where Deshaun Watson should play next.
Yet sometime not far off, a breaking point is coming. Because, at its core, sports is a cluster of multi-billion-dollar corporations dependent on all revenue streams to support high-priced labor. And if COVID-19 outbreaks continue to sabotage schedules deep into the new year, the industry will start to crack, and then crash. The pipedream of herd immunity, essential to the full-throttle resumption of sports, is further endangered by the onrush of these aggressive variants. And any hope of an expedited vaccine rollout this winter — Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration called it — is more comparable to a cement-mixer crawl. Meaning, the NBA and NHL potentially could lose billions. And Major League Baseball, careening toward an inevitable labor impasse, already is locked in early strife between owners who want to delay the season and players who do not.
Sports has no one to blame for the prolonged misery but, of course, sports. In the insistent rush to mush through COVID and complete haphazard seasons, the leagues have sent a reckless message to the masses. When games are played and create a sense of perverse normalcy, some unenlightened people watch and think, “Hey, I don’t have to wear a mask if they aren’t wearing masks playing basketball.” Thus, despite 450,000 U.S. deaths and collapsing hospital systems, millions of Americans have spread the virus with sports as a contributing enabler — if not a superspreader itself. Has the NFL even thought about infection possibilities Sunday, with 25 percent of respondents to a USA Today poll indicating they’ll attend gatherings to watch the Buccaneers play host — I’ve waited forever to write that — to the Chiefs? In Los Angeles, the virus epicenter where outdoor dining finally has resumed, a county order mandates that “televisions or other screens that broadcast programming must remain off until further notice” on outdoor restaurant patios.
Shouldn’t that be a national mandate? “It will be tragic if the Super Bowl becomes a superspreader of coronavirus,” said Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County public health director. “Don’t organize a party at home. Don’t go to a Super Bowl party.”
It’s a vicious cycle, hurdling headlong toward March 11, the anniversary of Rudy Gobert Night in America. Did you honestly believe, after the Utah Jazz center recorded the first positive test in U.S. professional sports, that we’d still be swirling in the COVID storm a year later? You would if you were watching the Jazz the other night, when Gobert went to the bench, removed his mask and started talking to teammates. If he hasn’t learned, will anyone? All you need to know is that Tom Brady, again the star of Super Bowl week at the incomprehensible age of 43 years and six months, was petrified when both his parents contracted the virus in September. They’ve recovered and will be in Raymond James Stadium to watch their legendary son try to win his seventh league championship.
“They’re doing great, so I think that’s the best part about all of it — they came through it,” Brady said. “There are a lot of things that happen in your life. Like all of us, as you get older, there’s more that you take on. I still obviously love going out there and competing. But on the other side of that, there’s a lot of family things that are very important to me. Certainly, the health of my parents is very important. I’ll be very excited to know my parents will be in the stands for the game on Sunday.”
With most of the country still homebound, hoping that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline as vaccinations accelerate, Brady’s matchup against Patrick Mahomes — literally for the ages, and for once not a cliche — should attract more than 100 million viewers. The common fan doesn’t care that celebrity parties aren’t happening in Tampa, or that “Opening Night” actually featured daytime Zoom interviews with only nine players per team instead of the usual free-for-all involving hundreds of media. All America wants is some semblance of normalcy, and while this Super Bowl experience will be much more isolated than convivial, pro football has exhibited staying power while other sports have struggled with inconsistent viewership.
The NBA is in an ugly place, cutting and pasting, trying to save a season and avoid financial doom. If the Disney Bubble was magical, the real world is maniacal. The only games worth watching involve top contenders — Lakers, Clippers, 76ers, Bucks — and, I suppose, the follies of a Nets experiment that features three of basketball’s supreme talents but also a spectacular lack of defense and consistency. With teams such as the Heat and Wizards leveled by outbreaks, the league faces a competitive imbalance problem that could lead to a hollow ending — and an 2020-21 asterisk.
The NHL, playing indoors in the virus-conducive chill, already has postponed a slew of games after commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will lose billions playing a truncated season. “Let me make something really clear: We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people — particularly in isolation, or where there are curfews — a sense of normalcy and something to do,” Bettman said. “It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play. We’re going to lose more money, at the club level and the league level, by playing than by not playing.”
As for whatever they’re doing Down Under, I was stunned to see 4,000 maskless fans in Adelaide — a city said to be COVID-free — watching Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and others play a pre-Australian Open exhibition. The gathering came just hours after a controversial 14-day quarantine, required of all players participating in the season’s first Grand Slam tournament — which is allowing up to 30,000 fans per day at Melbourne Park. The Aussies think they’ve conquered the virus. As we know in America, the minute you think you’ve won, you’re about to lose.
And the Olympics? Can you say sayonara? We know trouble looms because NBCUniversal is issuing hopeful statements — “I believe there will be an Olympics,” said CEO Brian Roberts of parent Comcast — as the Japanese government and residents openly resist the Summer Games with or without spectators. Tokyo was supposed to represent the symbolic restart of sport as we’ve known it. Instead, it could be a casualty of massive proportions.
Only the NFL has shown relative immunity, keeping a date with a Super Bowl once thought impossible. This is the team sport utilizing the largest swath of athletes, with the closest proximity to each other on a line of scrimmage, but the trick was being outdoors and not on university campuses, as we saw during a chaotic college football season. NFL players and their families miraculously heeded Goodell’s midseason warnings to follow protocols. Are we absolutely sure the league didn’t procure the earliest vaccines and distribute them to everyone but the Cleveland Browns, who nonetheless played well and nearly upset the Chiefs?
We’ll be hearing plenty this week from Dr. Sills, who will tell us why the 32 NFL Bubbles were some of the safest places in the land. We’ll also be hearing from Dr. Goodell, citing his COVID-19 success story as another example of why the NFL is king.
Honestly? I think everyone should just say a group prayer, play the damned game and be very, very, very thankful a catastrophe was avoided. Because no one is winning here except King COVID.