Was Sports During COVID a Good Idea?
It is easy to say that sports during an uncontrolled pandemic may be foolish, but I think it did a lot of good.
The Scotiabank Arena is just a couple hundred feet from Lake Ontario in Canada’s largest city of Toronto. Many Torontonians still call the arena the ACC or Air Canada Center based on the arena’s former naming rights holder. Up in the rafters are numerous banners and retired numbers celebrating the illustrious history of one of hockey’s most famous and beloved teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Almost all home games are sellouts and seeing a hockey game in Toronto, where the National Hockey League first began, is a sort of pilgrimage site for many hockey fans. Due to Toronto’s far north location and the winds that whip off of Lake Ontario’s shores, fans who walk to the arena to see a game normally have to bundle up in jackets and scarves to brace themselves from the climate outside. But on this day, there was no bundling up (daytime temperatures were reaching nearly 80°F) and there were no fans making their way to the arena. And while the rafters were still populated with Maple Leafs history and the Maple Leafs logo still appeared all over the building’s interior, the Maple Leafs were not taking the ice today. The two teams playing on this day would be coming from south of the Canadian border, from New York City and Raleigh, North Carolina to be exact. The seats were empty, covered with tarp which itself was covered in sponsorships, the Maple Leafs logo at center ice had been changed to a more neutral NHL logo and even the advertisements lining the side boards had been changed to reflect companies who sponsor games in Raleigh, not Toronto. This was sports in the new normal. Sports during COVID.
The NHL was the first of the main four North American sports to come back after all sports were postponed indefinitely in March. Just a few weeks later the NBA and MLB would resume or begin their playoffs and regular season respectively, and the NFL, the most popular sports league in the United States, kicked off on time about five weeks later. Eventually we got used to hearing sports arenas with fake crowd noise and hearing the players talking extra clearly (which became a headache for most television channels as they had to censor a large amount of profanity which previously went unheard due to sellout crowds). Even without the help of the crowd, the games were played with just as much intensity and passion as before, and ratings for sports games, which were essentially non-existent for four months, soared as people were stuck at home with nothing else to do. The NHL Playoffs played in a locked bubble in the two Canadian cities of Toronto and Edmonton went as well as the league could have hoped for, with zero positive tests and no games being cancelled or postponed due to COVID outbreaks. The NBA’s bubble at Disney World in Orlando, Florida was almost as equally successful, with just a handful of COVID-positive players needing to be quarantined. The MLB and NFL, whose games are mostly played in open-air stadiums, allowed some fans into games, pursuant to local government regulations, and although there were players who became COVID positive in these sports, both were able to complete their seasons, with the NFL’s Super Bowl Championship Game, the most widely watched event in the United States, set to take place next week.
But as people around the world watched their favorite teams compete for championships, many asked if sports during COVID was safe? Was it safe for the players? Was it safe for the fans in attendance of some baseball and football games? Was it safe for the arena staff, working to keep arenas clean, sell food and drinks at concession stands, or how about the staff of the teams playing? Was it safe for the coaches, many of whom are over the age of 55? And while I, as someone who is neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, can or should give a medical opinion on this matter, I can give my opinion as an avid sports fan. I believe that sports during COVID was a good idea, even if not every part of the operation went perfectly. Of course, the two leagues which utilized bubbles, the NHL and NBA, were optimal situations with nearly no COVID-positive tests (It is worth mentioning, that since those playoff series in the bubbles finished last fall, a new season of both sports has begun, not being played in a bubble and with some indoor arenas holding fans, and the numbers of COVID cases has gone up, but still remain relatively low). In the two leagues which did not operate in protected bubbles, the MLB and NFL, their players and coaches did have higher COVID rates (especially in the NFL) and some games did need to be postponed, although none were cancelled. The bubbles were, according to multiple reports, emotionally and mentally straining on the players and coaching staff which were quarantined, since they had to be completely away from their families for as long as two months. Although mental health should never be underestimated as an important factor in the life of an athlete, a bubble did seem to be the best possible alternative during the high point of the pandemic in North America, when dealing with the physical health of athletes. In the leagues which did not use bubbles, mental health was still an important topic, as both leagues (MLB and NFL) had strict protocols in place which essentially quarantined players in their hotel rooms and team facilities as soon as they arrived in a new city to play a game, but due to the fact that this self-imposed quarantine ended within 1-4 days, it was not as mentally straining as life in a bubble. While these reasons may seem like negatives and argue against practicing organized sports during an uncontrolled pandemic, I believe that the positives outweighed the negatives. Take for example the psychological and sociological factors which sports has in the lives of its fans. Sports helps us to stay connected, both to our favorite teams and our friends and family who also support these teams. In a time of Zoom calls and lockdowns, connections sustained through sports had a positive mental effect on many supporters of different sports teams. Sports also, through the joys of winning and the agony of defeat, helps to keep our emotional state operational and helps to take our minds off of the world-at-large. Pandemic death tolls, lockdown ordinances and stress from jobs and university studies all fade away for the two or three hours that our favorite team is trying to win a game. In the highly stressful world of COVID, this fact is also important to keep in mind. It was due to fantastic logistical planning and the sacrifices of players, coaches, and staff which made sports during COVID possible at all, not to mention the hundreds of healthcare workers who accompanied these teams throughout their time in the bubble to maintain low COVID numbers. Only because of this were sports able to give us the reprieve from daily life that is so badly needed in times like these.
So, could the world have gone on through the pandemic without sports? Of course. Sports is not a need of life, but I argue that sports, for those of us who watch it, can be a sort of temporary medicine for life’s woes. Sports brings people together without requiring physical touching and the taking off of masks, sports help to relieve stress and create happiness and good memories and sports gives us the chance to remember a world before the “new normal” became normal. A time before empty arenas, fake crowd noise and quarantine bubbles. Perhaps the first sign of life getting back to normal will not be going back into the office or sitting inside a café without a mask, but rather turning on your TV and seeing that arenas from Toronto to San Diego are once again filled with screaming fans all hoping for their team to win.