Sports In 2020: 'Shut It Down, Let's Go Home'

Richie Whitt

It’s a sunny Saturday summer afternoon at a Dallas tennis tournament and I’m done with COVID-19.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 – in all its danger, disruption and diabolical indifference – isn’t done with me.

After a match in the Dallas Tennis Association’s Summer Slam Series at Samuel Grand Park, I’m sitting on the sidewalk in the shade. Cooling off. Winding down. Casually watching matches on two courts in front of me. Alone. There is no one within 100ish feet.

Except …

Her: Sir, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

Me: Wow, did I …

Her: Per COVID-19 protocols, there’s no lingering before or after matches. Have to leave the premises immediately.

Me: Ohhhhhkaaaay, but I’m sitting here all by myself. The only one not social distancing is, um, you.

Her: You can leave now, or I can report you and you’ll forfeit your match.

Me: I’ll leave. But isn’t there a point where “being safe” deteriorates into “being stupid”?

With that, I leave. After playing a singles match where my opponent and I both touched the same balls and shared the same bench, and after exiting through the center’s pro shop by opening a door via grabbing a handle that probably hundreds of players have previously grabbed, I indeed leave.

My premature evacuation is merely a symptom. Re-booting sports too soon is the sickness.

Trust me, I get it. We want sports. We crave normal. We’re sick and tired of being told to be scared of being sick and tired.

Problem: COVID-19 will tell us when it’s time for sports, not vice-versa.

The more I see global, national and, yep, even rinky-dink local attempts to reopen sports, the more I’m – grudgingly – convinced they should remain closed. Through the end of 2020.

The Los Angeles Lakers are NBA champions; Boston Bruins NHL’s winners. (The Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars go down as playoff teams, that’s it.)

Award the college basketball title to Kansas, which was No. 1 when the sports world screeched to a halt on March 11.

No need to even start a bickering baseball season.

And as for the NFL?

“We are going to social distance, but play football?” Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay said last week. “I don’t get it.”

See ya in 2021. Because 2020 sports are the free trial that we desperately need to cancel. The Masters was skipped in 1944 because of World War II. A players’ strike voided the 1994 World Series. Labor lockout did the same to the 2005 NHL seasons. 9/11 put the NFL on hold.

Unfortunately, yes, COVID-19 is a similarly epic crisis.

Medical experts have tweaked their flails to diagnose this virus since the outset. What we thought in March doesn’t apply today. What we think today could be drastically different come September. Sports, alas, is attempting the impossible: Place rigid rules and finite dates on a morbid, moving target.

As Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson said last week, “Death has never been on the table before.''

The recent trends are troubling, signaling that COVID-19 isn’t shrinking but instead spiking. More than half the states in America – including Texas and Florida – have for the last week set record hospitalizations. Adults aged 18-39 account for half of Dallas County’s positive tests since June 1. You can, as with the common cold, be infected multiple times. Most grim of all: Still no vaccine.

Before we take a two-step forward, it may require another one back.

Said Texas governor Greg Abbott, “Surely the public can understand that if these spikes continue, additional measures are going to be necessary to maintain the health and safety of our state.”

We all know the dangers of coming back too quickly from an injury. First, you alter your form to compensate. Ultimately, you suffer a re-injury. In worst cases, it becomes chronic.

With this unique virus, no macho or muscle or moxie provides immunity. Sports at its best brings the world together. Right now we clearly still need to stay apart, guided by scientific data and not some subjective date. Sports is already learning what happens when you try to manage risk instead of simply eliminating it.

In the PGA’s second tournament, Nick Watney tested positive and withdrew. The NHL has 11 COVID-19 players and its Tampa Bay Lightning closed its training facility. Major League Baseball shuttered all spring training facilities in Florida in Arizona after multiple cases. In college football, Houston, Clemson and Texas (with 27 percent of its roster testing positive) are all considering shutting their facilities just weeks after opening.

Turns out Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley was right back in May, “All this talk about all these schools bringing players back on June 1 is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.”

We desperately want Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott to sign a long-term deal by July 15 and get back on the field. But with Ezekiel Elliott still self-isolating after his positive test last week, at this rate it’s almost unfathomable that the NFL Hall of Game against the Steelers will take place in only 44 days. (UPDATE: “unfathomable” just arrived. On Wednesday, Zeke became the biggest NFL star to voice concerns about moving forward with a 2020 season. And on Thursday the NFL decided to scrap Canton for this year.)

Said a Cowboys source last week, “It’s going to be a clusterf*ck.”

Professional tennis is the latest red flag. With its tour postponed until Aug. 1, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic took it upon himself to organize a charity event in Croatia. No masks. Full complement of linespeople and ball boys. Fans in the stands. Business as usual.

Good intentions. Horrible results.

Three Top 20 players – Borna Coric, Grigor Dimitrov and, yep, Djokovic himself – tested positive. Critics are now charging the sport’s best player with jeopardizing an entire season.

"We organized the tournament at the moment when the virus has weakened," Djokovic said in the statement. "Unfortunately, this virus is still present, and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with."

Djokovic, ironically, and Rafael Nadal have aired concerns about playing the U.S. Open in New York City. Legend Roger Federer has already canceled his year, citing an injury. A couple of players have joked about wearing a “hazmat suit” on the court.

“Boneheaded decision to go ahead with the ‘exhibition’,” Australian star Nick Kyrgios tweeted about the Croatian disaster. “This is what happens when you disregard all protocols. This IS NOT A JOKE.”

The spotlight is now on the NBA, which has detailed plans – highlighted by a 113-page “Health and Safety Protocols” manual – for some sort of biosphere in the middle of America’s new coronavirus hotspot for respiratory disease. (See "Mavs Donuts'' here.) Playing out its season while confining all teams and games to one site – inside a luxurious Disney bubble in Florida – is one of the most fascinating experiments in the history of sports. And also one of the most dangerous.

There is good news, in that Korean baseball and German soccer have re-started with strict guidelines and minimal incidents. But England, Italy, South Korea and Germany reported a combined 2,746 cases on Saturday. Florida alone reported 4,049.

Without a vaccine – sorry, “predictor rings” – there will be NBA COVID-19 cases. Will they be life-threatening? Likely not. Will they further dilute a mutated season? Obviously.

There are no plans to shut down NBA’s season in the event of one positive test. But what if the infected player is LeBron James? Giannis Antetokounmpo? Even Luka Doncic? Even worse, what if there are multiple tests – necessitating a handful of 14-day isolations – on the same roster? And what if the infected player(s) tests positive before a decisive playoff game?

I know we’re already tired of NASCAR and muted golf and ESPN replaying college Cornhole, but would we really lend credence to a 7-seed winning the NBA Finals not because it was better, only healthier?

Players aren’t gladiators, fighting to the death during a pandemic solely for our amusement. They are fathers, sons, brothers, human beings. Should we really expose them to abnormal health risks in pursuit of a tainted title?

When sports returns, I want it to feel like sports. Like everything again is normal, not a bastardized facsimile of a reminder that this is the best we have to offer because our world has gone to Hades in a wicker carry-on.

In the name of better-safe-than-sorry, shut it down. Before it even starts.

Sports should crown no more champions in 2020 because, if we’re being honest, nobody feels like a winner.

Painful as it is: Time to hand out masks, not asterisks.