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Dr. Sanjay Gupta: For fans like me, sports have never been just about the game. It’s about the whole experience. The electricity of the crowds. The witnessing of athletes perform superhuman feats. All the little traditions — the hot dogs, the wave, the seventh inning stretch. It’s about the cheering, the energy, the bonding, the socialization and the hope beyond hope that this year will be the year that your team finally wins.
But for the past few months … all of that has been gone.
The pandemic forced nearly every sports league in the world to cancel or postpone games. Even the 2020 Olympics have been pushed back a year, at least.
But now some sports are starting to return. NASCAR and golf have resumed, without fans. So have some European soccer leagues.
And now all the major American sports leagues are making plans to come back as well. I’m talking about baseball, basketball, hockey and, yes, even football. They’re all hoping to bring players together in person as soon as next month. What happens with these sports leagues will likely inform how we all progress together as a society.
While the leagues have spent months drafting protocols for shortened seasons, frequent testing and physical distancing in facilities, there is still a lot of uncertainty about how these sports can actually move forward, and also what will happen if lots of players start to test positive for the virus.
So what’s going to happen here? How’s this going to work? What’s it going to take to pull off the feat of getting thousands of players back into stadiums? And is it all worth the risk? We are in the middle of a pandemic.
Today I’m going to talk to broadcasting legend Bob Costas about what the future holds for sports.
Bob Costas has been a legend of sports television for nearly 50 years. He’s been the prime-time host of 11 Olympic games, countless baseball, basketball and football games — and even the Kentucky Derby.
So I wanted to know how he thinks about all of this. What are the risks and rewards of getting sports up and running again?
Bob Costas, MLB sportscaster: Well, the economic reason is obvious. The leagues and by extension the players can salvage some revenue, especially network television revenue, if they’re able to stage games even without fans. So that’s — we can’t be naive. That is a primary motivation.
But there’s also the notion that especially in tough times, that sports provide a diversion and can be a source of unity and a small sense that things are getting back to normal, although in this case, I doubt it. Because watching these games will be a reminder of how abnormal they are with no fans in the stands and with shortened or truncated seasons, and all the rest. So there is a, there is an emotional reason, and then there’s an economic reason because there’s still a lot of money still out there, which they cannot collect unless they play some semblance of a season, no matter what sport we’re talking about.
Gupta: Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, we can’t, we shouldn’t be naive about that particular driver in all this. Let me talk about football a little bit because the idea of true physical distancing and playing football, just they, they don’t go hand in hand.
I talked to Dr. Anthony Fauci adirector of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] about this, and he brought up this model that you have to essentially put the community of these teams in a bubble. They have to be tested often. They have to have very little interaction with the community, which may mean even little interaction with their own families. They essentially go into the bubble for the season and then they come back out. What about football? Do you think it’s going to happen?
Costas: Well, I think football is especially problematic because of the size of the rosters. The very nature of the game, this close physical contact by almost everybody on the field, on almost every play and then the experts say we ought to be wary of a surge in the fall and in the wintertime. Well, that’s when football is played.
The other side of the coin is that football, if they were able to play, is the sport that could come closest to recouping a gigantic portion of their expected revenue, because although obviously they make a great deal of money at the gate, the largest percentage of their revenues comes from network television.
And people are so obsessed with football and the time of the year and the fact that their team plays only once a week and gambling and fantasy and everything else. I think they would watch football in a larger percentage of the normal viewership than the other sports are likely to get. If, if, if they are able to play, and there’s so many needles to thread in that equation that, you know, good luck.
Gupta: They’re talking about being able to have the players wear masks via their helmet, physically distancing on the sideline, single-use rehydration systems, things like that. When you start to think about these various strategies, is there a path forward, do you think, for football?
Costas: So many things could go wrong. These are young men in a passionate sport. Are they going to observe all these things? Are they going to instinctively when they come to the sideline want to get close to a teammate or shout some encouragement? It just seems so difficult to be mindful 100% and have no slip-ups with so many variables involved.
Gupta: Yeah, no, I agree. And you take it even a step further. What if somebody says, you know what, I don’t want to do this? I know that you’ve created a path forward, but I still, my own personal interpretation of risk is different than what the league has set out here. I don’t want to do this. How, how would that work?
Costas: Yeah, you know, for example, in baseball, there are a few players, Jon Lester, the Cubs, Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers, are just two examples who have preexisting conditions that you as a medical expert would say this ought to exempt them, but others will say, “Well, you know, my wife has a preexisting condition,” or some will say this: “I’m already established. I have a long-term contract. I don’t want to play. I’m not citing a preexisting condition. I’m just citing overall concern. And it’s not worth it to me at this point in my career.” And the leagues have already indicated that they would honor that.
Gupta: Do you, do you draw a distinction when we talk about professional versus college athletes?
Costas: Oh, yeah, Sanjay. I draw a very big distinction. First of all, these athletes are unpaid. They have no union to protect them. They are at much greater risk than professional athletes would be. Plus, we have to be aware that there is legitimate concern that in many cases, especially with the big-time sports of college football and men’s basketball, that it’s a sham, that it isn’t really a student athlete situation. Well, if some of these conferences and colleges decide that they’re going to play, even if there are no students on campus, then what’s the point of this?
If everyone is taking virtual classes, what’s the point of a basketball game on campus or a football game on campus without students without at least the pretense that this is some sort of college experience? Absent that, if you’re going to play, then you’re absolutely saying it’s completely transparent: We’re playing for television dollars. That’s what we’re doing. And I don’t think that that’s the best possible look.
Gupta: A tough sell. Basketball. The NBA has proposed a plan to resume the season with teams essentially living inside a bubble in Florida. How, how do you describe how that would work?
Costas: Well, leaving aside just for a moment the idea that Florida is one of the states where the virus is really surging as we speak. Theoretically, the idea is you have relatively small rosters in basketball. You’d surround them with only essential medical personnel, essential staffing, and you would isolate them. You take over entire hotels. No one who is unauthorized could get in or out. And you would convince them that while this may be inconvenient, but this is the only way we can get it done. And we’re going to try to get it done in as compact a period of time within the calendar as we can. And then the season will be over with.
But, what about the hotel staff? They’re going to go home. They’re not going to be in the bubble, unless they’ve got a way to keep all of those people: the kitchen staff, the desk staff, the housekeepers, everybody, if they’re going to somehow isolate all of them and test all of them. But if they come in and out, then, then I think the bubble has been burst.
Gupta: Yeah. That there is gonna be a huge weakness in the, in the bubble or in the armor in this case, whatever it may be. I think you’re right. So let’s say you’re going ahead. But then several players test positive. Several more. Is there gonna be a specific number? Are they going to, to put a pause on things? Just end things? I don’t know. I don’t know that they have the answers to that. Or do you?
Costas: I certainly don’t have a definitive answer. But what I hear you saying is, OK. One player on the team tests positive and has to be quarantined for 14 days. Does that take the team off the schedule?
Remember what happened with Rudy Gobert, which is what started this back in late February or early March when the NBA suspended its season and other dominoes fell? The Utah Jazz player. The first thought was not only do we have to quarantine the Utah Jazz, but we’ve got to go back two weeks and look at every team the Jazz played over the last two weeks and figure out what we do with them. Now, it became a moot point because they suspended the whole season. But what if this happens within the bubble?
Gupta: Yeah well, when the NBA suspended the season, and this is more just from my own vantage point as a medical journalist, I’d been beating the drum on this issue for several weeks, felt like I was shouting into a vacuum. And then the NBA suspends their season. And I got all these emails. “Wait, what’s happening with this pandemic thing. Seems serious, huh?”
It was, it was amazing the impact that that suspension had on people’s awareness of this pandemic. You know, we got the pandemic, we got protests, we got politics, we got the Ps. Everything’s happening at the same time. And you do have players like Dwight Howard of the Lakers who recently said that we should be focusing on social change instead of a distraction like basketball. Is he making a fair point?
Costas: I understand where he’s coming from, and I recognize the legitimacy of his concerns. But I don’t think it’s logical. If they play these games, it gives them a greater platform. Even with no fans in the stands, they’re going to be on television. I think these are complementary situations and nothing stops these players from speaking out. Nothing stops them from taking advantage of this. And as far as I can see, the playing of games only enhances that opportunity, rather than taking away from it.
Gupta: It amplifies their voice and their platform.
Costas: I think so.
Gupta: If American sports do return this year but without fans in the stands, how big a difference will these games be without fans?
Costas: I think the difference is going to be substantial for all involved: for viewers, for athletes and for broadcasters. The idea of dead air on television, you can let five, six seconds go by saying nothing. The picture takes care of it. But now everything will be happening in a vacuum. And even five or six seconds in between pitches. And we know that sometimes baseball can have a meandering pace. Those five or six seconds with nothing, the, the first inclination will be for people to say, “Give me the remote. There’s something wrong with the volume. Oh, yeah, that’s right. There’s no crowd.” So we’re all just gonna have to feel our way through that because there’s no blueprint for it.
Gupta: Is it sacrilege to see some of those stopgap measures, as in Korea, where they had the screens in place of the seats. They had a bunch of screens with fans’ faces do you envision any of those kinds of things to supplement the viewing experience?
Costas: I don’t think we’ll see the fake images of people in the stands, but I think it’s very possible that one network or another and maybe all of them, if it catches on, will experiment with the idea of piping in crowd sound.
Back in the day, way back when, when games used to be re-created on the radio because they wouldn’t travel, the broadcasters, they’d get the information off a ticker-tape teletype sort of thing, and they’d re-create it. And they had sound effects, crack of the bat. They’d have someone in the background: “Peanuts, hot dogs!” And then depending upon what happened, they’d have a low murmur, a constant low murmur of the crowd. And then the crowd sound would rise with a home run or with a great catch. They’d have booing mixed in there and the whole thing.
And, of course, people accepted it because that was the best they could do under those circumstances. I feel like almost anything short of running the bases backwards, it’s OK to experiment with it, because fans will understand we’re in a unique one-off situation. So do you want to try something? Now’s the time to do it.
Gupta: What a thrill for me to speak to you, Bob. Thank you.
Costas: Thank you, Sanjay. The appreciation is mutual.
Gupta: Let me tell you — a big part of me wants sports to come back. It is how I unwind. I am a huge football and basketball fan — especially my beloved Michigan Wolverines. And I would love to be able to sit back and enjoy a game with my family right now. It’s one of our most reliable ways to bond together over the years.
But at the same time it’s hard to reconcile that with what is going on in the country and in the world … and with what I’m doing on a daily basis — going into the hospital, telling people on television and on this podcast to stay home, to physically distance, to wear a mask, to do everything they can to limit the spread of the virus.
As much as I want sports to come back — and I do — it’s also essential that the health of players and staff comes first. Especially when cases of the infection are spiking all over the country.
I am optimistic that sports will eventually come back. … But they’re going to look — and they’re going to feel— a little different when they do.
We’ll be back Monday. Thanks for listening.
Megan Marcus is the executive producer. Felicia Patinkin is the senior producer, along with Amanda Sealy and Nadia Kounang from CNN Health. Raj Makhija is the senior manager of production operations.
This week’s episodes were produced by Anne Lagamayo, Evan Chung, Zach St. Louis and Zoë Saunders. With additional help from Michael Nedelman.
Our associate producers are Emily Liu, Eryn Mathewson, Madeleine Thompson and Rachel Cohn.
Nathan Miller is our engineer, and David Toledo is the team’s production assistant.
Special thanks to executive producer of CNN Health Ben Tinker, as well as Ashley Lusk, Courtney Coupe and Daniel Kantor from CNN Audio.