Patriots

Bedard: When it comes to re-starting sports, get ready for backlash against the safety-conscious players

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In many ways, momentum is building toward the resumption of sports in the wake of the pandemic. Might even call it a groundswell. Even President Trump keeps sounding the call.

Almost daily, there are reports about how professional leagues are inching towards restarting. For example:

Sources: Owners approve MLB season proposal plan as players' association preps to see it next

McAdam: If baseball hopes to play, work must start now

NBA Notebook: 5 Takeaways from Adam Silver’s conference call on potential return of season

Weighing pros, cons of potential 24-team Stanley Cup Playoffs this summer

Of course, the NFL already released its schedule for the upcoming season and will tell anyone who will listen — especially advertising partners — the league will be open for business come September ... as it stands right now.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that almost all of the discussions to this point have been generated on the ownership/league side. Have there been some discussions with the players? Sure, a little. But, really, it's been the owners, in coordination with the league offices, coming up with at least some initial steps to getting the leagues back on the fields and on television.

Largely, however, the players have been left out of the discussion. It's been ownership formulating plans that they will basically take to the players and say, "This is how we're going to do it ... You're going to do this."

Do not be surprised if the momentum to a restart slows down again when these proposals get to the players across all sports.

MLB is getting ready to submit a plan to the MLBPA, and we all know how fickle baseball players can be due to the strength of their union (and the issues at hand, as Sean McAdam deftly laid out here). Expect a lot of caution coming from NFL players as well.

In talking with sources scattered around the league, many said they've been hearing a lot of serious questions back from the players when it comes to restarting their sport — and in football, it's only a soft discussion at this point because no one is thinking of coming back until the middle of July at the earliest.

"We can't just say, 'Our country's been shut down for a while and we're going to go back, some guys are going to get sick ... so what?'" said one league source. "I don't think we can do that."

Basically, players want to know: Why are conditions any better now for a restart, than they were two months ago when pro sports came to a screeching halt?

There still isn't widespread testing or detection — which has always been the biggest issue in the massive negative impact on this country to this point. There really hasn't been any advancement in this area in the two months since this all started. There isn't all that much definitive information about the virus — how it affects the body, spreads and how to prevent it. Heck, even the White House — supposedly the safest space in America for obvious reasons — has become a hot spot in recent days. The White House had a flare-up, and players are to expect their teams are going to be immune from that?

So players should be rushing to come back to work? Why exactly? Like the players are saying, "What has changed?" It's not like stopping professional games was about flattening the curve and curtailing the impact on hospitals — that was the public quarantine. Stopping the games was about the players' health. Nothing has really changed. Are they just going to stop again with another positive test?

The universal opinion around the league: NFL players want a lot more information ... they want concrete reasons why they should come back and why it's now safer to do so.

The players are right to ask these questions. Owners and league officials can formulate whatever plans they want to ... but they are not the ones who will be putting their health and that of their loved ones on the lines when they re-enter the workplace.

Of course, it won't stop the players from getting tremendous blowback from fans who want to be entertained, sports-affiliated businesses (especially media who have a megaphone at their disposal) who want to save their own jobs, and people who don't want to see rich athletes refusing to go back to work while most of the US workforce is struggling mightily.

This point was also drilled home in a tremendously thought-out column by Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post. Some choice excerpts:

Buried in the longing for some semblance of sports normalcy is a point we should all agree on: It’s okay if these athletes don’t have it in them to play just yet. It’s okay if they need considerable reassurance and greater clarity about their league’s safety precautions and the risks of trying to compete while the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

...

As business partners who also stand to lose significant money, their voice matters, too. Yet for all the rehearsed words the commissioners utter about safety being a priority, they are having to think so broadly and react so quickly to plan for the unknown that it’s impossible for them to feel the pulse of the players.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an independent thinker who always has been player-centric in his approach, put it all in the proper context during an ESPN Radio interview.

“If you’re a player, who do you trust with your life?” Cuban said during the “Freddie and Fitzsimmons Show.” “If you’re a coach or a trainer or anybody for that matter, that’s essential personnel for getting something back together, do you trust the hotel that we’re going to stay at to keep everything safe — the technology they’re using, the protocols they’re using?

“Who do you trust with your life? That’s a big question to ask somebody, but we all make decisions like that every day. Do you stay in? Do you go out? What do you do? Where do you go for your groceries? All of these things, how do you do it?”

Cuban isn’t ready to open the Mavericks’ facility. And that’s okay. Making money and preparing for a playoff run — if, God willing, the stars align for the NBA to resume — aren’t as important to him as meticulously planning for the safety of the people in his organization.

...

There’s a common belief in sports. It goes something like this: Everybody wants to win; everybody isn’t willing to do what it takes to win. We tend to draw a line and define competitiveness in terms of who wants to win and who burns to win.

This time, it’s different. Everybody wants to play. Everybody isn’t willing to do what it takes to play. Not until we know more about this virus and the disease it can cause. Not until testing is easily accessible. Right now, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in every decision. If that creates a level of fear and discomfort in players that ruins the chance of an expedited sports return, well, that’s life in the time of coronavirus.

“We’ve got to figure out a balance between what’s safe and what’s forcing it,” McCollum said.

And he’s just talking about going back to practice.

If we’re being sensible, we seem a lot closer to the beginning of this sports lockdown than to the end.

Look, you can't make this an argument that compares professional athletes to every-day folks. It's the same tired argument that some make when a player turns down X amount of money to continue playing for his current team to make more money elsewhere. And you also can't compare athletes to high-risk professions like healthcare workers or even grocery store employees. We all know some people are putting their lives on the line for the rest of us every day during this pandemic and we are thankful for them. But we all know not all professions are created equal.

Some, not all (and maybe not many), professional athletes are just different than us. You can't compare them to us. It's fruitless and wrong. Would it be great if all of us had enough money in the bank so we could choose safety over returning to work? Obviously. But we can't. Professional athletes, largely, can.

And there are several players — especially those in the minor leagues, the 75th guy on an NFL roster and rookies — who need sports to return because they need to continue or start to make a living.

But there are many who are more comfortable in this context: Say the players are told that if you push sports off for another eight months, to January/February of 2021 when a vaccine would likely be available, and all the sports return at the same time with fans — NFL, NBA and NHL start 2020-21 truncated seasons to be wrapped up by June, MLB just skips the 2020 season and starts fresh in 2021 – I think you'd be surprised how many more players would agree to that plan than anything that will be shoved in front of them right now. NFL, NBA and NHL players would get their prorated salaries down the line. MLB players would miss a season of payment, and that would be unfortunate. But, largely, most professional players wouldn't lose much in this delayed proposal and they could, perhaps, be virtually guaranteed much safer conditions.

Would there be a massive outcry if the athletes chose this more cautious route? Of course there would and it would understandable, but it would also be a shame. This should reinforce that these sports are about the players centrally, not about the owners or even the fans. And if they're not comfortable, then we should be listening.

At the very least, the players deserve their voice to be heard and loudly. Sports should be taking their cues from the players in terms of restarting anything, not basically bullying them back on the field.