COVID-19 and Sports
Kyle Sorgi, Staff Writer
The world had to hit the pause button for several aspects of daily life when COVID-19 first introduced itself. However, sports have rebounded surprisingly well through either resuming an ongoing season, rescheduling an upcoming slate, or being fortunate to have enough time to plan an agenda before suspending play at all. By no means have sports looked or felt the same, but they have been doing alright for the players, staff, and fans that missed them during their temporary absence.
The first major sport to return was MLB baseball after an extensive negotiating process between the MLB and MLB Players Association. Opening Day of a 60-game season was July 23 and the MLB was able to flatten its COVID-19 curve after several members of the Miami Marlins tested positive within the first week of the season. Notable rule changes include a universal designated hitter, seven-inning games for doubleheaders, placing a runner on second base to start extra innings (only in regular season), and an expanded playoff bracket that features 16 teams rather than 10 teams. The interesting result of this unique season has been the opportunity for teams that would not be playoff-contenders in a 162-game season to vie for postseason spots. The Miami Marlins might be the greatest beneficiary of such, who secured a playoff spot and ended a 17-season October-less stretch. The Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres, and Cincinnati Reds are other teams that ended lengthy postseason droughts and cashed in on this rare opportunity. People might put asterisks next to statistics that rival historic records, but the intrigue of the MLB’s new look will prompt a widely-watched path through October as well as several enduring questions about how many of the new rules will stay or go once things get back to normal.
Shortly after the MLB, the NBA launched its bubble atmosphere in Orlando, Florida. On July 31, its restart began with 22 teams and is now close to crowning a champion. In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat took down the Boston Celtics to earn a spot in the NBA Finals a year after not even going to the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers—who also did not make it to the playoffs last season—fended off the Denver Nuggets in the West behind the dominant duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. However, before their elimination, the Nuggets became the first team in NBA history to come back from multiple 3-1 deficits in the same postseason after defeating the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers (and trailed 3-1 against the Lakers as well). In spite of the reduced teams in Orlando, the league’s voice has been no quieter in the face of social injustice. Many players chose to print specific messages on the backs of their jerseys in efforts to utilize their platform to inspire change and action. The NBA has also been heralded as one of the more successful restarts across sports for its lack of COVID-19 cases for months. While there is no home-court advantage in the bubble, most of the series have been competitive and slightly more balanced than playing at team arenas with fans in the stands. It will be fun to see whether the Heat or Lakers finally prevail in a season unlike any other.
Just two days later, the NHL pursued its new path toward the Stanley Cup Finals. Before the break, the Boston Bruins were the best team in the league. If the season had not resumed at all, the Bruins would have won the Stanley Cup trophy by default; but, a 24-team, two-city restart had other things in mind. After a brief round robin stage followed by the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars competed for the Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins, and New York Islanders to reach the Stanley Cup Final, while Dallas took down the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, and Las Vegas Golden Knights in route to their first appearance since 1999. The Lightning hoisted the Cup on Monday, October 28 after besting the Stars 4-2 in the series. The state of Florida might have other things to worry about with their numerous COVID-19 cases, but at least they have a Stanley Cup championship under their belt.
The last of the major sports to begin play was the NFL, but since the virus broke out shortly after the Super Bowl in February, there was enough time in the offseason to not have to change any in-season scheduling. The NFL canceled all of their preseason games and modified training camp, but the usual 16-week season has been safe since its September 10 kickoff between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Some big faces in new places include Tom Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cam Newton with the New England Patriots, Jamaal Adams with the Seattle Seahawks, and DeAndre Hopkins with the Arizona Cardinals. Although, those offseason moves might not compare to an onslaught of injuries. During Week Two alone, there were seven torn ACLs and countless big stars such as Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and Nick Bosa were diagnosed with injuries that will either keep them out for multiple weeks or the whole season. The surge of injuries, along with the lack of chemistry from new teammates, is most likely due to the lack of preseason games and proper time to get loose before the start of the season. Also, the NFL has experienced their first outbreak of the season after 10 members of the Tennessee Titans organization have tested positive for COVID-19. Their week four matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed and will be rescheduled for a later date; hopefully, this is the only significant outbreak in the league, or else injuries will not be the only factor keeping players off the field.
As for other sports, nobody was exempt from a COVID-19 hiatus. The PGA Tour made several adjustments to the remainder of their 2019-20 and 2020-21 schedules, including moving the Masters Tournament to November 12-15 (originally in April). The WNBA had 12 teams play a 22-game season—12 games shorter than usual—in what is referred to as the “Wubble” (women’s bubble) in Bradenton, Florida. That league has boiled down to a best-of-five WNBA Finals duel between the second seed Seattle Storm (18-4) and the first seed Las Vegas Aces (18-4). Also, college football is restarting in several ongoing stages as more conferences follow through with abbreviated return-to-play plans that either have or are scheduled to start; the Big Ten and Pac-12 are two prominent conferences that initially voted to cancel their seasons but soon changed their minds.
Despite all of the hardship and adversity for players and team personnel across all sports, there was one unprecedented event that could not have happened under normal circumstances. On September 10, for the first time ever, the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA, LPGA Tour, NCAA Football, and US Open tennis all played on the same day. All of these sports would not typically be in season at the same time, but the impact of COVID-19 in postponements and rescheduling created this one-of-a-kind sports mecca.
We still have a long way to go before life is completely back to normal, but the successful resumption of sports has certainly propelled things in the right direction. Stay safe, Hounds!