The Games Must Go On

COVID-19 upended the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, and MLB. How the professional sports leagues responded offers a glimpse into our future.


In any other baseball season, two Cleveland Indians pitchers hitting the bars in Chicago after a Saturday night game wouldn't be news. It wouldn't cause a minor scandal within the team's clubhouse, and it certainly wouldn't result in the two offending players being immediately removed from the Indians' roster.

But that's exactly what happened after Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac—two-fifths of Cleveland's excellent starting pitching rotation—got caught trying to sneak back into their hotel in the early morning hours of August 8. Their teammates were so upset that they threatened to opt out of the rest of the season if the two pitchers were allowed to remain with the team, according to media reports. Facing a clubhouse revolt, Cleveland's front office made the decision to "option" both players off the major league roster for 10 days—a maneuver that would typically mean a player was demoted to the minor leagues, if only there were minor leagues this year.

Sports are back! Clearly, however, things are still far from normal.

There's no playbook for how to conduct professional athletic events in the midst of a pandemic. The guidelines that we've all learned to follow in recent months are only so helpful—good luck playing any team sport while maintaining six feet of social distance from your opponents on the field, court, or rink and your teammates in the locker room.

In that regard, bringing the games back before the pandemic dissipated was, like everything else we do these days, not about eliminating risk but about mitigating it. Different leagues have responded in different ways, and their various choices have relied on a combination of formal strategies shaped by economic and political considerations unique to each sport and informal coping mechanisms—like Cleveland's ballplayers policing one another's behavior and objecting when the actions of one or two people put everyone else at risk.

As is always the case, sports during COVID-19 have served as a reflection of the broader American experience. But sports don't just reflect the culture; they exist in dialogue with it. The return of professional athletics is not a return to normalcy by any means—the stadiums are empty, the cheering simulated—but after a long setback, it does represent a step forward into the next stage of living with a serious problem that we don't yet know how to solve. In some ways, sports offer a massive real-world experiment in how to safely navigate a pandemic without simply shutting everything down.

The Blackout and the Bubbles

That experiment began, of course, by simply shutting everything down.

On the evening of March 11, National Basketball Association (NBA) players from the Utah Jazz were preparing to host the Oklahoma City Thunder when Rudy Gobert, a forward for the Jazz who had been feeling unwell for days, tested positive for COVID-19. The game was immediately canceled, just minutes before tip-off.

From there, the dominoes fell quickly. Gobert's teammates were told to go home and quarantine immediately. But the Jazz had played five other teams in the previous two weeks, and each of those teams had played several others. Epidemiological lingo like "test and trace" was not yet familiar to most Americans, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver quickly did the unpleasant arithmetic. The next morning, he announced that the league would enter a 30-day hiatus—one that would eventually be extended to more than four months. The National Hockey League (NHL) also suspended play on March 12, and Major League Baseball (MLB) teams began canceling spring training games. The chaos of the moment was perhaps best demonstrated by the Big East, a college athletics conference, which made the decision to cancel its annual basketball tournament that same day—in the middle of a game between St. John's University and Creighton University.

The last pro basketball game played before the pandemic was a 113–97 win for the Dallas Mavericks against the Denver Nuggets. The game began like any other, but the teams were informed midway through the third quarter that the league was shutting down. They walked off the floor not knowing when they would return.

It would be 131 days before any of the four major North American sporting leagues resumed competition, when the first pitch of the new MLB season was thrown on the evening of July 23. (If you count Major League Soccer, which returned to play a few weeks before baseball did, the blackout still lasted more than 100 days.)

The shutdown was a completely unprecedented event in the century-plus history of organized team sports in America. The Spanish flu epidemic had caused the cancellation of the 1919 Stanley Cup final between the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans after several players on both teams came down with the disease (one later died), but other sports had continued apace. There were some disruptions during World War II, when star players such as the Boston Red Sox's Ted Williams went off to fight; some franchises temporarily merged with others—the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers briefly became the "Steagles," for example—in order to field full teams, due to the shortage of able-bodied men. In the aftermath of the defining tragedy of the first two decades of the 21st century, the 9/11 terror attacks, both Major League Baseball and the National Football League (NFL) suspended their seasons for a week.

But terrorist attacks are discrete events. When they're over we cry, and we rebuild, and we look to familiar pastimes to feel like things are normal again. When the Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza hit a crucial home run in the New York Mets' first game after 9/11, some 45,000 fans packed into Shea Stadium and countless more watching on television were able to forget, for just a few moments, all the awfulness they'd seen the week before.

Sometime in the weeks that followed March 12, it became apparent that there would be no such catharsis associated with this national tragedy. The number of cases and deaths rose, then fell, then climbed again. The economy abruptly tanked, unemployment spiked, and a full recovery seemed distant and uncertain. The return of sports was, for a time, equally uncertain. President Donald Trump talked about reopening the economy by Easter, and MLB officials floated the idea of returning to play in early June, or at least by the July 4 weekend. All of those dates blew by.

By May, both the NBA and the NHL were discussing plans to finish their suspended seasons behind closed doors, with players, coaches, officials, and support staff isolated in so-called "bubbles" for the duration.

In the end, the NBA invited 22 teams—any that had been within a few games of one of the league's 16 playoff spots when the season was suspended—to the Walt Disney World resort near Orlando for a postseason tournament. Meanwhile, the NHL set up bubbles in Toronto (for Eastern Conference teams) and Edmonton (for Western Conference teams). The league had strongly considered sites in the United States, but as the COVID-19 outbreak worsened in late spring, the plan shifted northward. Twenty-four of the league's 31 teams were invited to the tournament, with 12 playing in each city.

To keep the bubbles virus-free, both leagues employed similar four-step quarantine processes. Starting in June, players and staff were required to self-quarantine in their homes for at least two weeks. Group workouts and informal practices among quarantined players began after that. By early July, teams began holding training camps in their home cities, keeping players and team staff isolated from the general public in smaller versions of the "bubbles" that would be used once play resumed: Everyone on the team would stay in the same hotel and travel to and from practice together.

By the time teams arrived in Orlando, Edmonton, and Toronto, everyone involved in the resumption of play had been separated from the world for weeks and repeatedly tested. Anyone who had to leave his bubble—perhaps to get treatment for an injury or to witness the birth of a child, as Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller did—was required to self-isolate for more than a week and have four negative tests before he could rejoin his teammates. Importantly, players in both leagues were allowed to opt out of the entire thing if they chose. A few did; most did not.

The monthslong experiment has yielded weird new experiences for both players and fans. Both leagues set up the equivalent of courtside and rinkside Zoom conference calls to allow fans to "cheer" remotely for their favorite teams. Confined to their hotels between games, teams have taken to playing a lot of Ping-Pong and video games, judging by players' social media posts.

It hasn't all been fun and games. Paul George of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers admitted to battling anxiety and depression while being locked in the bubble. And the NBA playoffs were temporarily interrupted on August 26—not by COVID but by a players' strike meant to bring attention to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

Still, from a public health standpoint, the bubble strategy seems to have worked—at least for the relatively short period of time necessary to conduct playoffs and determine a champion. By September 2, more than a month after the NHL and the NBA resumed competitive games, neither league had had a single positive test. Both appeared to be on course to finish their unusual seasons and crown champions by mid-October.

"I think we all understand how unique this year is and how crazy it's been," Bill Guerin, general manager for the NHL's Minnesota Wild, told ESPN in July. "We've just got to roll with it a little bit."

But then what? Because the long blackout pushed back play, the next regular season is supposed to begin soon after this year's playoffs end. Both leagues say they intend to play a full schedule in 2020–21. That creates a host of new problems—problems that Major League Baseball is already navigating.

Being Careful and Hoping for the Best

"I think there's still some doubt that we're going to have a season now," Andrew Miller, a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, told's Anne Rogers on July 5.

It took weeks of tense negotiations between the players union and team owners before both sides had agreed, somewhat unhappily, to a 60-game season (down from the usual 162) that would start on July 23 and end with the World Series being played, as usual, in late October. There would be no "bubble"—teams would travel from city to city as usual, and games would be played in home ballparks, albeit without fans.

By the time Miller made those remarks on July 5, players were already reporting to training camps and getting ready for the season. And yet, as his comments implied, it didn't quite feel like the season was definitely going to happen until the moment when Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stepped onto the field of Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., to throw the ceremonial first pitch of the season's opening game. The pitch missed home plate by about 20 feet—a fitting visual representation of just how off-kilter everything about this baseball season has been.

"We're trying," Miller had said in that same July 5 interview. "We're going to give it our best effort."

In contrast to the strict, sterile processes implemented by the NBA and NHL, baseball's "best effort" at holding a 2020 season has more closely resembled America's general response to the pandemic: being reasonably careful and hoping for the best.

It didn't take long for the coronavirus to cause chaos under those conditions. By the end of the season's first week, a COVID-19 outbreak among members of the Miami Marlins and the Philadelphia Phillies, who had played each other July 24–26, set off a domino effect of cancellations across the schedule. A separate outbreak within the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse prevented that team from playing even a single game between July 30 and August 14. Once they resumed playing, the Cardinals faced the daunting prospect of playing 55 games in 43 days to make up all the missed contests.

That's a lot of doubleheaders in an already-shortened season. If a team suffers a similar outbreak later in the season, it will be a logistical nightmare. If an outbreak occurs during the playoffs, no one is sure what might happen.

Without a formal "bubble" to provide some measure of protection, baseball players have had to adapt much like the rest of us. Some have taken risks and paid the price: The Marlins' early-season outbreak was traced back to a postgame visit to the hotel bar.

Unlike basketball and hockey, which merely had to figure out how to finish already-started seasons, Major League Baseball had to figure out how to begin one. MLB owners—facing a substantial revenue hit without fans to buy tickets, let alone $15 beers and $7 hot dogs—wanted the players to take pay cuts above and beyond what the players had agreed to in March, when the season was suspended. The players union, meanwhile, resisted any suggestion that the season be played in one or more bubbles that would keep players away from their families for an extended period of time. As they haggled over how to conduct the unorthodox 2020 season, both sides were also looking ahead to next year's renegotiation of the sport's collective bargaining agreement, hoping to gain leverage.

Those political, economic, and logistical considerations partially explain why MLB went in such a conspicuously different direction from the NBA and NHL. But the sport's culture is part of the answer too. Put simply, if baseball were a state, it would be a red one.

Like states, sports are not monolithic, so the metaphor is limited—but still useful. It is undeniably true that the ethos of baseball is more conservative, with greater deference given to tradition and a heavier emphasis on individual performance. While star players in the NHL or NBA might be individually transcendent talents, most pro hockey and basketball players earn their paychecks by being cogs in a bigger machine. That is, they know how to spread the floor to open holes in an opposing defense or understand the mechanics of an effective blue-line trap. Baseball players are part of a team too, of course, but they earn their money by excelling at individual acts: hitting a curveball, say, or running down a fly ball in the gap.

A successful baseball team excels because of the culmination of all those individual performances. It can't simply hand the ball to its star player in the crucial game-winning moment and let him do the job.

As it turns out, that's a lot like how society fights a pandemic.

"It's not just about you or your team," Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow told the Tampa Bay Times during the week when the Rays' in-state rivals, the Marlins, were waylaid by the virus. "It affects every other person and staff member. So to take it that irresponsibly and go out and do some sort of self-serving acts is pretty ridiculous."

The Game Goes On

From the fan's perspective, there is little doubt that the NBA's and NHL's use of bubble sites has provided the better experience. Beyond the main priorities of keeping players safe and games on schedule, both leagues leaned into the weirdness of their respective situations and even had a laugh at it. The scoreboard operators at one first-round NHL game in Edmonton reminded viewers at home to "please exit your couch safely at the conclusion of the game."

The nature of those two sports helps. Every time the camera tracks a long fly ball during a baseball game, you are reminded of the thousands of empty seats framing the action on the field. In basketball and ice hockey, the action stays mostly on the ground, and the blackened background of empty stands fades into the, well, background.

For a minute, sometimes, it's possible to almost feel like things are normal.

But they aren't, of course, and that's why baseball's grand experiment with playing through the pandemic probably matters more. The NBA and NHL bubble tournaments are the sporting equivalent of the strict isolation that made it possible for places like Singapore and New Zealand to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Those arrangements might be the most effective way of stopping the disease for a season's duration, but they're ultimately unsustainable and unnatural for the long term. That's true even if your lockdown experience involves hanging out at a Disney World hotel all day and getting paid millions to play a game every other night.

Baseball's messier, more uneven reopening is what sports will actually look like—indeed, what society will look like—until the disease disappears or is vanquished by a vaccine. The National Football League also plans to hold games this fall in empty or partially empty stadiums but will not use a "bubble."

It is far from ideal. It comes with greater risks for players' health, the chance for chaos in day-to-day and week-to-week scheduling, and few long-term certainties. It means relying on one another to make good choices, recognizing that we're ultimately responsible for our own health and the health of those around us—and not merely trusting the authorities to ensconce the world in a protective bubble. It means muddling through and trying to win even when your best players do something stupid on a Saturday night.

"I am not a quitter in general, and there is no reason to quit now," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in early August, amid widespread speculation that the season would have to be scrapped just a week after it began. "We have to be fluid, but it is manageable."

The important thing is that the game goes on.