President Trump Pushes for Sports Return; Will NBA Shove Back?

Mike Fisher

President Donald Trump conducted a conference call Saturday with commissioners from the major sports leagues, reportedly suggesting, among other things, that the NFL season should start on time in September. Given the NFL's relentless march forward despite the COVID-19 crisis, my sense is that he probably has some allies among league owners.

But about the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver, who was also on the call?

Silver reportedly nudged back, at least a bit, by telling the president of the NBA's willingness to return once there was an "all clear" from public health officials.

The NBA, led by Silver and by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, have been well out in front of other sports leagues and other businesses in recognizing the realities of the coronavirus pandemic. My sense is that while many in the NFL might be willing to go along along with any White House push, the NBA - as much as it wants to be a "leader'' in returning to the arena just as it was a leader in leaving it - won't be "pushed.

"Sports in September'' is going to require allies, and as we watch the work of top aide Dr. Anthony Fauci, I'm not certain the president has allies on this in his own White House or in his own administration? Aren't we learning that the only thing that will determine a true timetable to normalcy is the very thing creating the abnormality - the coronavirus?

My position here is pro-sports and apolitical. The NBA and the NFL are not just my avocations; covering sports is also my vocation. It's how I pay the mortgage. The media companies with which I'm affiliated have handed down to employees salary reductions, furloughs and even layoffs. COVID-19 caused all of that. I'd like it to leave now.

And of course it's not just you and me. As Sports Illustrated's legal expert Michael McCann writes:

That is true of professionals who help to produce games, such as security officers, janitors, ushers, box office staff, cheerleaders, dance team members, lightening and production technicians, cashiers, cooks, concession stand workers, parking garage attendants and other typically part-time, seasonal workers. It is also true of those who work at restaurants, bars, and apparel and merchandise stores located near stadiums and arenas, and those employed in sports-related broadcasting, media, finance, advertising, marketing, hotel and travel occupations. 

But we can't "persuade'' the coronavirus away. We can't "wish'' it away. We can't "bully'' it away. Optimism is lovely, but ...

“It would be great if we could play” by September, Trump said Saturday during his post-conference-call daily news briefing. “We’ll have to see where we are.”

That's a slightly different tone than what seemed part of the conference call itself, in which the president reportedly stated that the NFL season should start on time in September, and that he hoped fans would be back in arenas and stadiums by August. The NBA wants all of that, too; heck, Cuban first talked of a mid-June return, then altered that up to mid-May, and is now admitting rightly, "I don't know'' about a date.

"Sports in September''? I believe those words fell on very receptive NFL ears when commissioner Roger Goodell passed on the highlights of the conversation to the 32 owners - NFL owners that far for than most every other American industry, sports or otherwise, continues to operate as close as possible to "business as usual,'' highlighted by the altered-but-still-happening April 23-25 NFL Draft.

I believe Silver and his group is less rah-rah about it all.

“I want fans back in the arenas,” Trump said later in a briefing at the White House. “I think it’s ... whenever we’re ready. As soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful fresh air.”

This is indeed true. But the president's top staffer in this department, Dr. Fauci, is urging great caution here. Trump himself is now projecting a possible 200,000 American deaths as a result of COVID-19, and labeling that number a relative triumph. And even people who share with Trump and NFL owners and NBA owners a passion for a healthy economy are trying to tell us ... no.

“I’m not anticipating that happening in this state,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom when asked about a September re-boot.

President Trump has frequently in the last week nodded toward the economy by saying things like, "We have to open our country again'' and “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem. We have to open our country because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems.”

Is a ruined economy the same as actual death? This is the level of decision-making soon to come across the desk in the Oval Office. And as much as we love the NBA and the NFL as an avocation - as much as some of need the NBA and the NFL as a vocation - we're also going to need something more than begging, wishing and bullying ... and something bigger than basketball and football.

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