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Eric Fisher | Committed leadership within sports points a way through pandemic

Eric Fisher

In the middle of the still-growing Covid-19 pandemic, one in which the state of Florida is typically seeing roughly 10,000 new cases every day, the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, and Women’s National Basketball Association each have reported something utterly remarkable: multiple weeks’ worth of days with zero new positive cases among their large and diverse testing groups.

And in MLS’ case specifically, the zero new positives marked a rapid pivot after initial outbreaks within Dallas FC and Nashville SC forced the league to remove both teams from its MLS is Back Tournament.

The complete lack of new cases comes even as the NBA and MLS resumed play in Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and the WNBA across the state at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, and the pandemic continued to grow in strength literally all around them, making Florida one of the foremost United States hotspots for the virus.

There are, of course, some very important reasons for the marked divergence of the NBA, MLS, and WNBA from the rest of American reality in this age of Covid-19. Each league spent many weeks, as well as many millions of dollars in infrastructure and testing costs, to create highly regulated and quarantined environments in order to protect their players, staff, and related personnel.

It is certainly true that the “bubbles” that each league has created are not feasible in most other segments of society, and particularly cannot be replicated at the thousands of high schools and colleges now struggling with questions of if and how to reopen this fall.

And just in sports, one only need look at Major League Baseball and how struggles in that league’s market-based resumption led to a suspension of the Miami Marlins’ season amid an outbreak of Covid-19 cases among the club, and a subsequent, similar issue with the St. Louis Cardinals.

But the highly encouraging testing results of the three leagues operating in Florida represent much more than the unique nature of sports leagues or simply throwing money at the problem to buy commercial testing resources in a way that that others cannot or have not.

Rather, the testing results also represent the direct fruits of committed and consistent leadership of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, MLS commissioner Don Garber, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, and union leaders in all three sports, as well as widespread cooperation and steady focus among numerous stakeholders on the common goals of resuming play and keeping everybody involved as safe as possible while doing so.

It is no secret the broader American response, particularly within the political arena, to the pandemic has been entirely insufficient to meet the scope of the challenge at hand. There has been absolutely no comprehensive, coordinated strategy of any sort at the federal level, leaving individual states largely to fend for themselves and often contradict each other in their responses.

And in complete ignorance of now-established science, mask wearing in public has been a political hot-button topic and another wedge issue along party lines, to the absurd point where the Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, is now suing city of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, in that state over her efforts to mandate masks locally.

Now contrast that nonsense to what has occurred across the US sports industry in recent weeks. Each league and their players have doggedly gone through the difficult work to create a highly detailed set of protocols that can still adapt to emerging situations, and then moved to the even tougher task of executing those provisions.

Amid more fractious labor negotiations this summer in both MLB and the National Football League, there has been no seismic, ideological divide on keeping players and related personnel as safe and healthy as possible, even as the Marlins’ troubling situation has emerged and the NFL is facing growing numbers of player opt-outs for the 2020 season.

Rather, disagreements that have occurred there have been more financial in nature or merely tactical on how precisely to get to that safer place.

And in the case of the National Hockey League, the league and NHL Players Association used the challenge of the pandemic as an impetus to not only develop their Canadian-based restart plan but also strike a four-year extension to their collective bargaining agreement.

“I wouldn’t even say it approached a negotiation,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “It was a recognition by both sides that we were being confronted with an incredibly difficult and novel, unprecedented situation, and then to get through for the good of our constituents and the good of the game and good of our fans, we needed to work together to solve the myriad problems that would be in front of us.”

That, in turn, created something New York Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky called entirely unprecedented in Bettman’s 27-year run leading the league.

“The job the commissioner has done to get hockey back in these challenging times is probably the greatest accomplishment of his tenure,” Ledecky said. “It’s been unbelievable as an owner to sit there and watch the commissioner and his colleagues pull this together.”

In early July, Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle said, “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say. We did flatten the curve a little bit, but we didn’t use that time to do anything productive…We decided we’re done with it. If there aren’t sports, it’s going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized.”

The games are indeed coming back, as each of the major US team sports properties are now resuming play. To Doolittle’s point, the country really hasn’t done the hard work to truly deserve them. But thanks to the extensive efforts of the leagues and respective players’ unions, we’re getting them anyway.

“You really have to continue to just trust the science,” Engelbert said. “I know that’s sometimes hard to do. We’re showing that if you follow the science, follow the protocols, you can remain stable in this very uncertain environment.”

The rest of society should take careful note of that.

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