Last month, President Trump said something a lot of sports fans can relate to.
“You get tired of looking at nine-year-old baseball games, and playoff games that took place 12 years ago,” he said.
With the NBA and NHL seasons suspended, and Major League Baseball hitting pause mid-spring training, fans initially flocked to the classic games that ESPN and other sports networks resorted to re-airing to fill their schedules amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As time has gone on, the sports world has grown increasingly antsy for live competition. As the MLB negotiates a partial, fan-less season with the players union, many baseball fans have been waking up early to follow the Korea Baseball Organization, which recently resumed play in empty stadiums. ESPN has resorted to airing live coverage of the beanbag game cornhole. The NFL has announced a fall schedule, but given no specifics about whether it expects to have fans in the seats.
But Trump has gone beyond the typical sports fan’s laments. He’s circled back, again and again, in appearance after appearance, to the idea of resuming play. “We want to have our sports leagues open. You want to watch sports. It’s important,” Trump said in April. “We miss sports. We miss everything. We want to get back.”
The president has held multiple calls with sports commissioners to encourage them to resume play, and several with ties to professional sports are among those the president has asked to weigh in on how to reopen the economy.
“He knows the American people are yearning for the things we used to take for granted, sports being a big one of them,” said Ari Fleischer. He now works in sports communications, but was White House press secretary on Sept. 11, 2001, when terror attacks stopped sports and everything else.
Fleischer said even with everything else they had to confront and plan for, senior White House staff paid close attention to when and how sports resumed play in mid-September.
“The president was personally very cognizant of the signal it would send to the American people: that we’re back on our feet, you can resume your lives, put your fears aside, as soon as sports returned,” said Fleischer, adding that “America without sports was like a heart that doesn’t pump.”
Indeed, the return of baseball provided New York City — and the country at large — that signal that fall. First, catcher Mike Piazza powered the Mets to a comeback win over their nemesis, the Atlanta Braves, with a late-inning home run at the first game back in Shea Stadium.
Then, the Yankees marched to their fourth-straight World Series with comeback after comeback, including two of the most iconic moments in Derek Jeter’s career: a mind-bending defensive play against the Oakland A’s that became known as “The Flip,” and an extra-inning home run in the World Series.
President Bush himself provided one of the most memorable sports images in 2001, when he threw out the first pitch from the Yankee Stadium mound before Game 3 of the World Series.
But as strange at it seems, it was easier to protect against terrorism than it is to protect against a virus: the very nature of a large gathering is dangerous, no matter what precautions are taken.
That’s why officials from Dr. Anthony Fauci on down have warned that pro sports aren’t advisable any time soon, especially with fans in the seats. “Safety, for the player and for the fans, trumps everything,” Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the New York Times last month.”If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.’ ”
“The prospect of mass gatherings is negligible at best, until we get to herd immunity and until we get to a vaccine,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said, in response to questions about whether play can resume this year.
If baseball begins play this summer — league officials are currently in talks with the players union — it would be in empty stadiums. That’s how the Korea Baseball Organization and Germany’s soccer league, Bundesliga, are proceeding.
That’s not what the president is pushing for, though. “When Alabama has a football game against LSU, I don’t want 20,000 people in the stands with seven empty seats in between everybody,” he recently told ABC News. “I want 110,000 people like they got.”
“I hope we can do that soon,” said Trump, who in recent days has begun downplaying the importance of both pervasive testing to resuming normal life.
“President Trump is eager to see Americans back to work, businesses back open, and families and friends able to support their favorite teams. The President is hopeful that sports will be able to return quickly and safely at all levels.” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement to NPR. “As our resilient country defeats coronavirus, we are confident that sports will continue to strengthen and unite all Americans.”
Still, even the sports world isn’t united around the concept of resuming games.
Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle has been outspoken on his concerns about safety. He recently told The Athletic’s Starkville podcast that he’s also worried about the message games would send. “You know, look, these guys are playing baseball, and sports are back. So everything has returned to normal,” he envisioned many fans thinking. “And then all of the sudden we break social distancing measures and we stop home quarantine too soon. And then it spikes again and it gets out of control.”
In that sense, instead of uniting, sports is once again mirroring the broader culture — showing increasing divides on how to proceed in a pandemic that shows no signs of ending soon.