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Magic Johnson (at CNN town hall): Stay at home, watch your TV shows, watch old NBA games. I’ve been watching NBA TV, the old classic games and also, you know, bingeing out on all my TV shows that I like as well.
Dr. Gupta: You were a lot of those NBA classic games, by the way Magic, as well, so you’re seeing yourself a lot, I imagine.
Dr. Gupta: That was me speaking with Magic Johnson at a CNN town hall. For the first time in modern history, we’re living in a country without sports.
No season openers, no championships. No fans in stadiums.
Sports reporters, like rugby commentator Nick Heath, have had to get creative.
Rugby commentator Nick Heath (on Twitter): In the meantime, you join me live at sunny Tooting Commons as Mike O’Connell looks to put in another impressive showing here in the Daily Dodge. Classic approach to leave the house in gym kit, looking like he’s exercising, but he’s not fooling wife Deborah when he comes back, having not broken a sweat …
Dr. Gupta: After the NBA suspended its season, most major sports organizations in the US followed suit. And it’s not just athletes and team employees left to wonder what’s next — it’s also meant unemployment for thousands of arena workers and businesses that support the nations’ sports teams and events.
In a way, sports — or the lack of them – serve as a litmus test for how serious this pandemic is.
Serious enough that President Trump has included commissioners from all the major US sports leagues on an advisory board to reopen the country.
In this episode, I talk about the impact of shutting down sports — and what it would take for games to resume.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
NBA Announcer (March 11): The game tonight has been postponed. You are all safe.
Dr. Gupta: That was March 11th, when an announcer called off the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz game just before tip-off.
Most of us remember that day — it was the day President Trump announced the travel restrictions from Europe, the day Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson said they tested positive for Covid-19… And the day the NBA suspended the rest of the season after Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz center, had tested positive for the virus.
You may remember Gobert as the player who touched all the microphones at a Utah Jazz media event as a prank. He didn’t know he was positive at the time, and later apologized for it.
I’m a huge basketball fan myself, so I was crushed when I heard the news of the NBA suspension. But of course, public health comes first.
CNN Sports Analyst Christine Brennan: To me, that really was the watershed moment in the entire coronavirus — Covid-19 conversation, and not just in sports, but in our culture.
Dr. Gupta: Christine Brennan has been covering sports for three decades. She says she hasn’t seen anything like this in her entire career.
Brennan: I think it woke the nation and the world, frankly, up to the significance and the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Gupta: After the NBA suspended its season, it was like a domino effect — Major League Soccer and the NHL have suspended their seasons for now. While Major League Baseball is hoping to open its season in May, according to ESPN. And the NCAA canceled its spring and winter championships.
As a Wolverine (go Blue!) I love March Madness. It’s one of my favorite times of the year
I even had tickets to the Final Four this year, so I was really disappointed when that didn’t happen. But the threat to our health and safety was too great.
And it wasn’t just the safety of the fans, it was for the safety of the athletes too. … A total of 11,000 Olympians, expected to compete in Tokyo this summer, have had their plans put on hold. The 2020 summer games now postponed until 2021. The games have been canceled three times before, but this is the first time they’ve been postponed.
And of course even a date that far ahead doesn’t come without concerns, Christine Brennan told me.
Brennan: Will we, in the summer of 2021, will people feel comfortable flying on planes overseas? Will the Japanese fans feel comfortable being in big stadiums? And the answer is over and over, experts I’ve talked to — we have no idea. We just do not know.
But by that point, of course, a lot of these Olympic athletes will have lost months and months of training.
I just don’t think we know yet. And I think that uncertainty is so difficult for athletes. Consider that Olympic athlete — their whole lives for this one moment.
Olympic runner Abdi Abdirahman: First it was hard, you know, just as an athlete. We trained for it, you know, for almost a year to two years, just to make the Olympic team.
Dr. Gupta: That’s Abdi Abdirahman, an Olympic distance runner — 2020 was the fifth time he’s qualified. At 43, he’s also the oldest American to run the marathon in the Olympics.
Abdi Abdirahman: You know, like before the coronavirus hit, you know, you have a goal, like that’s the one thing like you have, like road races coming up. You have something to get ready for. But at this time, everything’s in the air. I … I’m just training just to stay fit.
Dr. Gupta: And the sports world isn’t just waiting on the sidelines in the midst of the pandemic — Major League Baseball is now participating in a nationwide coronavirus antibody study.
League employees, spouses, and players volunteered to participate, to help give a better understanding of how prevalent this virus really is.
Daniel Eichner: So our goal is not to get MLB specifically back to work. Our goal and our research is really to get a better understanding of what the true prevalence looks like across the nation.
Dr. Gupta: I spoke with Daniel Eichner, the president and lab director of the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory.
Eichner: They were a great partner and a great organization because they had nationwide coverage that we could access — individuals that were asymptomatic, regular part of the general population, you know, from team owners all the way down to hot dog vendors and beer sales people on game day and everything in-between.
Dr. Gupta: You’re looking at the MLB, it sounds like a sort of microcosm then of the country, representing different demographics of our country. Can you talk me through how it was administered then? And how quickly then did they get results?
Eichner: Some people could do a drive-through program where they had a bunch of their technicians, physicians, trainers and the individuals would just drive through, stick their finger out the window, get their finger prick and get the result literally in a matter of minutes.
Dr. Gupta: And it seems that most people would fundamentally want to know then, am I now essentially immune? Can I get infected again?
Eichner: I think it’s too soon to say what that immunity looks like.
Dr. Gupta: Now, the federal government is slowly making plans to reopen the country. As I said earlier, President Trump has asked major league sports commissioners to be a part of that conversation.
The commissioners have a tough job — they’re weighing a lot of things in making the decision of how and when to get back to work.
Brennan: Commissioners work for the owners in their league. And the owners are going to want to start playing. They’re going to want to start making money again. They’re not liking the losses, the financial losses that they’re taking, of course. No one is. The commissioners also have to weigh the very significant health risks, not just for the players and their families and the referees and the coaches and the TV people and the and the media people, but also the fans in the stands. And if you’re drawing people into a stadium and if it becomes a coronavirus hotspot and all of a sudden it explodes — that is the fear of every commissioner in every sport. You open up too soon, you bring people together and all of a sudden you have another coronavirus bomb.
Dr. Gupta: Sports as we know it may not be the same for a long time.
The NFL draft, which starts tonight, will be held virtually for the first time, as was the WNBA draft last week. The league plans to start its regular season in September and the draft helps set that into motion. Here’s NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in an interview with ESPN.
Roger Goodell: Obviously, it’s a different year for all of us. We had to make modifications in our off season program. We’ve had to make significant changes to our draft and those were all appropriate and they’re right to do. And we, part of what this is about is to continue to work from home, be productive from home, continue to do things we’re supposed to do and be prepared.
Dr. Gupta: There’s also the possibility that spectator-less sports will become the new normal. Christine Brennan predicts that that will happen at the PGA men’s golf tournament when it comes back in June, and the Masters in November.
Brennan: We could see a Masters without spectators. And that’s going to look very strange to a lot of people.
Although my prediction here is that within a couple days of watching some of these sports events, if you watch a baseball game without spectators one day, it’s not going to look as strange the next day. And by the third, the fourth day, you’re going to be totally used to it and you’re just going to be happy or watching baseball again. I think sports is walking this very fine line. It’s kind of a tightrope. We want sports back. It’ll make people happy. It’ll signal this openness that maybe we’re coming out of this. And yet you don’t wanna move too fast.
Dr. Gupta: Olympic runner Abdi Abdirahman thinks that the 2021 Olympics will be a history-making, record-breaking year.
Abdirahman: I think it’s gonna — it’s gonna unite us. We’re gonna have so much energy, like a lot of things when every athlete wants to represent their country because they know what their country went through. So everybody wants to do their best.
Dr. Gupta: Magic Johnson also remains hopeful.
Johnson: Look, America and all of us who live in this great country that we live in, we need sports, especially in a time like this, but only if everybody is safe.
Dr. Gupta: One day, live sports will come back. We’ll be able to fill basketball arenas, cheer for our teams in giant stadiums, bring our sons and daughters to baseball fields.
I’m looking forward to that day. But our health and our safety should always matter most. Especially now.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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