The day before his team’s season opener last week, Red Sox President Sam Kennedy expressed confidence about baseball coming back.
“We would only promote it and only support it to the extent that we believe that we could provide a safe environment for our fans and our players and our customers," he told reporters last Thursday.
But Kennedy left some room for doubters. “This is unprecedented, and we understand that not everyone may share that opinion," he said.
Since then, the climate of the game has become a whole lot more frigid. Over the weekend, the news broke that over a dozen players and coaches on the Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19. Their season got postponed through Sunday.
Less than a week into the season, baseball’s suspension of disbelief popped like a balloon and fans came back to reality. As sports try to mount a comeback amid a pandemic, people might wonder: Should we, as a country, even be doing this?
Roger Shapiro, an associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, admits the outbreak among the Marlins shows the country has a long way to go in controlling the coronavirus. Still, he said he doesn’t think it necessarily means the virus will spread through Major League Baseball.
“It does mean that steps need to be taken for those players," Shapiro said. "It shows how important testing is for containing outbreaks and it shows that, you know, we clearly need to take steps for those who are positive to make sure that they don’t play for the specified period of time.”
Right now, MLB, MLS, the WNBA and the NBA are all back in action. The New England Patriots are getting ready for training camp, and the Boston Bruins start back up this weekend.
With no fans present, there’s no way the professional leagues are going to make the money they usually would. But there’s still a large financial incentive for them to play.
“Leagues like the NFL and the NBA depend on things outside of what happens in the stadium for up to 60 percent or more of their revenue," said Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross. "So if they can still get people to tune into games — now obviously they've lost some games, too — but if they can still get the same sort of TV audiences and the same sort of licensing deals and people still going to buy jerseys and T-shirts, then those leagues can make about 60 percent of what they were making before."
But what about the athletes who aren’t getting paid to ball?
Right now, the biggest question heading into the fall may be if we see any college sports — particularly football — when schools resume classes.
"From an ethical standpoint, having NBA and MLB and NFL players decide whether they want to risk their health in order to take a paycheck is one thing," Matheson said. "Asking so-called 'student-athletes' to risk their health while forcing them to take nothing just so [Clemson University Head Football Coach] Dabo Swinney can maintain his $10 million a year paycheck — I think that’s a huge ethical dilemma that’s facing a ton of universities right now.”
In Massachusetts, the only major program still holding out for a fall season is Boston College, which plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference. UMass Amherst's football team, which operates without a conference, is still preparing for a season. But the Atlantic 10 conference, which every other fall sport at the school competes in, has postponed fall contests and conference championships. The intention is to move them to the spring semester with a possible truncated conference schedule in the fall if conditions allow. The NCAA has punted on a possible decision to cancel championships for fall sports until next month, leaving a patchwork of conference and school decisions across the nation.
Jeff Konya, the athletic director at Northeastern, said the health and safety of student-athletes and a limited schedule of games led the school to make the difficult decision to push fall sports back into the spring.
But even if a vaccine for the coronavirus is developed by then, he doesn’t think it will be an automatic fix to get college sports back to the way things were.
“What I perceive is, it's going to be a comfort level rolling with society," Konya said. "And as society gets comfortable with the vaccine and somewhat return to normalcy, eventually that hopefully will yield into an environment by which athletics gets back to what it was like in 2018-2019.”
What about youth sports?
For Tom Teager, the president and owner of Fore Kicks, a group of sports complexes in Norfolk, Marlboro and Taunton, more has to be done now to get kids back to play.
Teager started a petition, which has over 15,000 signatures as of Tuesday evening, to convince Gov. Charlie Baker to reassess the risk level assigned to sports like soccer and to get a better idea of how long restrictions on play would last.
Eventually, Baker updated those guidelines, moving the listing for soccer from high to moderate risk.
When youth games weren't allowed in Massachusetts, Teager said parents and their kids were simply crossing state lines to play in neighboring New England states like Connecticut and New Hampshire.
Teager said the importance of youth sports is about more than just stats and scores.
“And look, you know, if a parent feels uneasy about letting their child play, that’s fine. And they should go with their own instincts," he said. "But what we’re showing is, and from my opinion and my background in dealing with sports all of these years, the harm that’s happening to these kids by not playing far outweighs the risk of going to play.”
People want a lot out of sports. The pressure to get back to play and give the public some sort of relief from everyday life has to be massive for everyone involved.
Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle may have been the best at putting this all in perspective when he said "sports are like the reward for a functional society."
Now, the question of whether our society is currently functional is as prickly as a cactus with a suntan. But as some pro athletes sit out to protect their health or devote time to advocating for social justice, an outbreak plagues baseball, and questions swirl over if football can be safely played at any level, it’s easy to see the state of play is not what it once was.
So should we be getting back to sports? No matter where you stand, America already has.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the NCAA could cancel fall sports. The NCAA can cancel championships for most fall sports. Regular season games and competitions could potentially still happen even if championships are canceled.
This article has been updated to correct the status of football at UMass Amherst.