The Coronavirus Shuts Down Sports Edition

Listen to this episode

S1: Hi, I’m Josh Levine, Slate’s national editor and the author of The Queen, this is Hang Up and Listen and it is the dreaded emergency podcast we’re recording on March 12th, 2020, the day. Well, I guess maybe March 11th is the day that sports came to a halt in America and across the world. Joining me now from our D.C. studio, from his home in D.C., where separated geographically but not in spirit, is Stefan FATSIS, author of the books Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic. Hello, Stefan. Hi, Josh.. And joining us from Palo Alto, it’s Slate staff writer, host of Slow Burn Season 3, Joel Anderson. Hello, Joel. Good morning. You know, we’re all assembled here for the of his treason that there will soon be no sports to talk about. So maybe we should chat about them now while we can. The NBA suspended its season on Wednesday night after Rudy go bare. The Utah Jazz tested positive for the Corona virus. We learned on Thursday that his teammate Donovan Mitchell had also tested positive. We should stipulate from the top, Stefan, that we are recording this on Thursday morning. News of league suspensions, postponements, cancellations are coming in as we’re recording this. And so all the information we’re sharing here might be out of date by the time you listen to this. But can you just run through what we know right now as we’re recording?

Advertisement

S2: Sure, Josh. First, you have to say that the scenes late last night. As the rudie go, their situation unfolded were to me, among the most dramatic news scenes in sports. I don’t know. Going back to Magic Johnson’s press conference when he announced that he had HIV. I mean, it was coming from the what would you bomb? The NBA is suspending its season, which sort of capped off this bizarre scene in Oklahoma City where this game was about to start between the jazz and the Thunder. And a doctor runs onto the court and they confer with the referees. Chris Paul runs over to the jazz and asks if there’s something wrong with Rudy, go bare. And they sort of push him away. The players leave the court, though. Stadium announcer orders everyone to leave. It was just a stunning, if not in retrospect. Twelve hours later, retrospect, entirely surprising turn of events. So what do we know? We know that Donovan Mitchell, as you said, has tested positive. We know the NBA is on an indefinite hiatus. We know that other players are beginning to be reported to have to have coronavirus. Not just Mitchell, our player on you vent us in Italy. A player on the German soccer club Hanover have tested positive. Players on Leicester in England are reportedly showing symptoms. Real Madrid players are in quarantine. This is just going to be a daily flow of news and events. And it’s certainly if it wasn’t already dramatic and apparent when you start hearing that athletes are testing positive or celebrities are testing positive like Tom Hanks, it becomes all the more more frightening and and and newsworthy.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Yeah, I agree. And I think, you know, Rudy go bears is in this way sort of the perfect snapshot of the collective American response to coronavirus, because it was a couple days ago that the video emerges of him at this press conference and he jokingly touches the reporter’s recorders and touches the mikes and breathes over them before he walks off the set. And then, you know, two days later, he’s, you know, right at the center of the NBA is, you know, pretty much unprecedented shutdown. And I think it is a testament to like how quickly we got a grasp of how serious this is. Now, obviously, there are people far outside of sports that are dealing with much more serious implications for Kobe at 19. But I think that it really took what the NBA did last night. It was actually within a span of 35 minutes, like the world fell apart in that way because yet Trump’s address, you had the Rudy go bad news yet the NBA, you know, suspending it season like all all this torrent of news came at once. And it was just you could see Americans, a lot of them for the first time, getting their head around how serious this is and how disruptive it’s going to be, because I think that a lot of people thought, oh, well, we’ll still have sports to lean on or we’ll still have, you know, TV content to get us through this time.

Advertisement

S4: And not that much will change. I have to make a few adjustments and wash my hands, but it won’t necessarily mean a change of lifestyle habits for me. And you could just see within that half hour last night, which would have been 9:00 out on the east, six o’clock out here, that everybody just kind of got a hold of themselves and like, oh, wow, like this is going to be one of the most disruptive moments in American history.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So we’ve been talking for the last couple weeks about this. I think our conversations have paralleled the larger discourse where we initially are talking about it. We’re like, you know, looking back to nineteen eighteen for examples and it seems really far away and hard to imagine what it could possibly be like then when we talked about it earlier this week, the kind of new reality that we’re dealing with is, oh, LeBron doesn’t realize we’re going to need to play without fans, but he’ll get on board. We’re all sort of realizing it. And then, you know, fast forward 48 hours later and we’re the ones who seem naive. It’s like, obviously this is what was going to happen because it only takes one person in the entire universe of people involved in this league, players, coaches, writers, referees. If anybody test positive for this virus, there is going to be a shutdown. And it seems ridiculous that it didn’t occur to us at the time. But I think it is it does take a player, you know, testing positive for us to realize the extent of this and for sports. I think to understand that there is nothing kind of special about. Being a pro league that millions of people watch and follow and that, you know, where 20000 people will come out to games, that actually puts people more at risk rather than having it be special and requiring some sort of special dispensation that sports should be exempt. And I think, you know, for as savvy as we think that we are. I think we were all kind of there. Even if we didn’t think we were until Wednesday night.

Advertisement

S5: Yeah, I think that’s right, Josh, because, you know, we were talking about the hypocrisy of the Ivy League, for instance, taking this dramatic step of canceling its playoff tournament, its conference tournament, but allowing the two declared champions to travel to play in the NCAA, which was right. The problem was we didn’t say, well, they shouldn’t be playing the NCAA in front of no fans, in front of any fans or at all. It was the at all that we were missing. Some writers were picking up on it every Tuesday and Wednesday. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated had a piece talking about how the NBA and he specifically said this The NBA, if it has a patient zero, they’re going to have to shut it down. And that’s exactly what happened and who looks really naive now as we talk. If every event and every league that hasn’t shut it down. You know, Major League Baseball as of right now is still deliberating what to do. Should we play in Florida or Arizona? Well, we’d rather play in in major league ballparks and not in other facilities. Kenny Rosen, Paul is reporting for the athletic on Thursday morning. These decisions are all going to be taken out of the league hands. I mean, the NHL, for instance, as of now, also has been sort of rise up. Right now we’re consulting and we don’t know what to do. They canceled morning skates on Thursday, but didn’t take any more serious action.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S6: I mean, what’s really incredibly naive, if they consider that 48 hours ago the question that wasn’t being discussed in sports was a collective action by some of the pro leagues to bar reporters from locker rooms.

S3: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I mean, the thing is, you could argue that even the pro leagues were being more thoughtful about this than a lot of the college and in some professional leagues. By the time we’re done recording this podcast, things could have changed. But the XFL hasn’t necessarily said that they’re gonna do it, you know, cancel games there. There were college basketball games going on last night while the country is in a full blown panic. a._c._c basketball tournament said that they were planning on still holding games today in front of, you know, limited a limited audience. And so one thing that sort of occurred to me is that the people with the least labor protections and big time sports are still out there playing in. And you get a sense for how reckless organizations that people are willing to be if they can’t assert their label, their labor protections. Right. And I’m not you know, I mean, there’s no reason why the NCAA ballet or these colleges say, hey, look, we might as well just shut things down. There’s there’s really no risk in being overly cautious right now.

Advertisement

S6: You know, there was really dramatic last night, Josh, watching on one channel, the NBA shutting down and then flipping over to any of the ESPN and seeing like North Carolina playing in the SCC tournament with plenty of fans and the fans or the U.S. women’s soccer team was playing Japan in the last game of a tournament. It was striking. And for me, it just was a reminder that, you know, none of this shit matters. We like to pretend that sports have this important bonding and cathartic effect. But boy, has that been rendered mute.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Strong disagree there. I think that we need to give space for the fact that it sucks that this is this is happening. It does matter. Sports is a genuinely an activity that people bond over and that can provide a respect and a sense of normalcy when shit is just going totally insane.

Advertisement

S7: I am going to miss being able to watch basketball.

S6: I like we we were all thinking, well, if we’re all locked up in our houses, at least we can watch the tournament.

S3: Yet the problem is that though that all these games are played by people. Yeah. You know. Yeah. And they’re fueled by all the people around them that are around them and then the people that they go home to impossibly affect. And so I agree. Like sports is important. I would love to sit and watch the Lakers play the Clippers on a soundstage, you know. And you know. A game where everybody’s miked up and you can’t hear the fans, so we can really get to, you know, behind the scenes of the NBA, but I don’t know and I don’t want to speak for Stephanie, but I think the issue is that in the whole scheme of things, we really have to play sports in a proper context. And it just in with the rest of whatever is going on in the country right now and in the world, we have to say, you know what, we just really can’t afford to play games right now because ultimately that’s what they are. They’re games.

Advertisement

S7: Yeah. I agree. And I think it’s one thing to say that and acknowledge that. But I think the reason these decisions are difficult for the leagues is her financial ramifications here. The reason this is difficult for people that love sports, they watch sports and care about sports is that it’s sad that it’s come to this.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And it’s an indication, you know, the fact that in order to contain this virus, to have social distancing, to flatten the curve, we need to do things that are very dramatic and that are outside the norm. And the reason that they’re outside the norm is that we don’t want to do them. We do want to watch these games.

Advertisement

S5: We do want players to play them that we want to watch them and we want to go to them. And some of the reactions in Europe have also been pretty jarring. PSG played in the Champions League on Wednesday in an empty stadium in Paris, but hundreds and hundreds of PSG fans had gathered outside the stadium before and during the game, defying city for a national ban on gatherings of more than a thousand people except in the event of protest. So they were arguing that this constitutes protest. And this is in Europe where it’s as in the United States. There is tremendous risk. And there was a piece by Joshua Robinson in The Wall Street Journal who was there, and he reported that the fans had a huge flag that they unfurled outside the arena, which had the virus is off. Fans are crazy and there’s a lot of denial, and if you go look at comments under Twitter posts or under stories, you’re going to see a lot of people saying this is an overreaction still. We want our sport.

Advertisement

S8: The reason I think people think this is an overreaction is because. First of all, I mean, it’s really difficult to know, like where the most reliable information. You know, our government institutions are not functioning in the way that they normally would. Right. Or, you know, there is a change at the top here. And so we can’t be certain that the right information is getting out. So I do think that that’s a problem. But I also just think people don’t want to be inconvenienced. I mean, I’m still leaving the house and going to do things. I’m not supposed to be self-quarantine or anything, but I don’t want to disturb my life either. I’m still ordering food from people who may be exposed to corona viruses to to the grocery store yesterday. We’re all doing these things and we don’t want anything to change because we don’t think anything should fundamentally have to change. That’s gonna be the biggest problem here.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: I mean, I’m thinking in Texas right now, they’re scheduled to play their boys state high school basketball tournament this weekend.

S3: And in San Antonio, in light of they’ve canceled the rodeo in Houston, they’ve canceled south by southwest in Austin. And they’re still trying to host a fairly big event there. And it just it we just have not accepted that that’s not the way that life is going to be. It will be really interesting to see if by Saturday who’s going to fly in the face of the best practices and try to hold these large events, because I think it’ll tell us something about those people.

S10: I mean, again, if the Nixon the Wizards had their way, they would be hosting games this week giving the Wizards were defying direction from D.C. about not holding large events. There are certain organizations and it does seem kind of telling which ones they were that were disregarding advice and and seemed to think that they didn’t have to play by the rules, same rules as anybody else did.

S7: I mean, on that kind of flipside of that, one thing that’s been really fascinating to see in a lot of people are noticing is that the jazz and thunder players and personnel seem to have no problem getting access to coronavirus testing when pretty much nobody else in the country is able to get those tests. And that was another big thing, Stefan, that I think was part of their response to Wednesday night when all of this stuff was coming to a head. And people are starting to realize, you know, what we’re facing here as a society is that the kind of inequalities and fundamental unfairness of our health care system, of our political system, and how that manifested in this really high profile case where these star athletes and the people around them are able to get treatment and access that others can’t.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: Well, I think that there’s a fundamental unfairness there. But the reality here, Josh, is that there’s a fundamental incompetence here. This is less about the structure of the American health care system than it is about the inability of our government to have planned for this, to have accepted the reality that was being articulated by the World Health Organization, to have accepted an offer of existing test for this weeks and weeks ago when it would have mattered and we wouldn’t be here saying that, well, really go there. And the JAV and the Thunderer got tested. But. Some regular person that’s been on the phone on hold with the state Health Department for for hours trying to explain their symptoms, can’t get tested in a better world, in a more competent governance world. Everyone would be tested. There’d be drive thru clinics and every friggin state and everyone who needed would be tested there. And you know what this shows, if anything? It just highlights. Yes, the exceptionalism of sports in America. And that’s not to minimize the fact that like all of these players are potential carriers and would have gone into airplanes and back to their communities and they all need to be tested. It’s urgent. But but thousands and thousands of other Americans do, too.

S10: Jason Concepcion just posted a graphic Jason Conception Okay network on Twitter saying that Johns Hopkins and Maryland has at covered 19 testing capacity of 50 total patients per day. Apparently fifty-eight tests went to NBA players on Wednesday.

S11: So the NBA has a better testing capacity than Johns Hopkins. That’s kind of fucked up, but not necessarily bad.

S8: I don’t know, man. I guess the thing is, is that we’re gonna have to you know, I mean, it’s bringing all these things to light. But, you know, at the end of the day, right now, it seems like the NBA is about one of the best, best or better run organizations, institutions left in American life because they took the lead on this in a really precarious time. Like it’s not like they’ve had a great year, you know, starting off with China. They’ve had Kobe’s death. They’ve had low ratings all year long. It’s been bad news after bad news and bad news for the NBA this year. They could use this money. They could use the revenue that is coming in right now. They could use the exposure. They’ll have the sports team to themselves. But they were willing in a moment of crisis to take a lead into a really drastic action. And that’s I mean, even though, you know, obviously there’s a lot of inequities and age had the ability to get these corona virus tests before anybody else. But I think it also is important to point out they’re willing to make a hard decision where a lot of other people would not. They put they stuck their necks out there. And for that, they should be applauded.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: Fear of a player in the NBA. You should be heartened that the NBA was prepared enough to find a way to make sure that this testing capability was available to its employees.

S10: Yeah, that’s a great point. And then B.A. has not made other hard decisions. So this is not, you know, praise that should, you know, blanket over that. But in this case, they did. And you know, Joel, I think you’re right. It reminds people that, you know, we saw Mark Cuban on the sidelines of the Mavs game on Wednesday night looking at his phone and being shocked that the NBA suspended its season. And so this was even for people who are the most powerful, the biggest stakeholders in the league. This was a surprise. This wasn’t unexpected. And so that shouldn’t be minimized.

S12: And it’s also, I think, important to point out and fair to Mark Cuban to note that he had a press conference after all this went down. And one of the things he talked about was ensuring that the part time and full time employees that worked for the arena who were going to be hard shipped by the NBA, shutting down, finding a way that the team would find a way to compensate them.

S1: So let’s talk about what happens next. The players for you, Ventas, where, Stefan, you noted at the top of the show a guy tested positive there, quarantine for 14 days, the absolute minimum that any league that suspends could restart is in 14 days. And that is just not going to happen. I just saw a tweet indicating that the owner of an MLS team said their target is 30 days. Mark Cuban said on ESPN on Thursday morning the NBA may play until August.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S7: You know, just being honest with the Hang-Up listeners, we have no idea what’s going to happen. But it does seem plausible that leagues will extend their seasons and arena availability and TV availability, all factors in and with the NBA. There’s the question of the Olympics, which are scheduled to happen in July if they happen. So this is just an enormous mess to try to puzzle through.

S12: Well, one one parallel might be the Chinese basketball league and it shut down for 10 weeks before resuming. I think you’re looking at for baseball, certainly a shortened schedule, which, hey, not the worst idea under any circumstances.

S7: Maybe we don’t ever have to go back.

S1: Yeah, maybe it could be shortened. That might not.

S12: The NBA has been talking about shortening its schedule for a while. Here’s a chance to do that. And I think if if these leagues do insist on completing their schedules and that’s what I gather is being discussed in Europe, they’re talking about. Filling the rest of the Champions League and the Europa League and pushing the Euros. The National European Championship to 2021 from the summer, which would allow the domestic leagues to complete their schedules. So I think you don’t get a lot of the ancillary stuff, carful. I mean, at this point you have to think that the Olympics are gonna either get postponed until next summer or take place in some form drastically reduced fashion. I mean, maybe there’s no basketball tournament in the Olympics because the NBA needs to drag its season into the summer, because the domestic revenue is far more important than the PR boost of staying in the Olympics or we send a college team. I mean, I think there are lots of things that could happen. But I think for starters, it’s one of the leagues that have these huge financial commitments to the players, the sponsors, the vendors. What are they going to do to ensure that the business gets up as soon as it is safe for the businesses to get up? And I think that’s where the leaves are going to have to get to that we can’t do anything until it’s safe.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: I mean, the thing is, though, that we may all be sort of naive about how long it will be until things get back to normal. Right. You know, it it it could be the rest of the year or or long.

S4: You know, and I just don’t total is really not a way to get our heads around that, because we’ve none of us have ever lived through anything like this before. But, yeah, I mean, it’s totally plausible that we won’t have the Olympics. We won’t have the NBA Finals. We won’t have, you know. I mean, right now we’re pretty much looking at a situation where they’re not going to be able to have the NFL draft as an event. Right.

S8: They’ll they’ll be able to draft players, but they won’t have an event in Las Vegas. We’re going to see some unprecedented cancellations and suspensions in the next few days, weeks, months. It’ll be interesting. See who’s able to kind of come back and recover from this, too, right? So when baseball canceled the World Series, it was at 94. It took a while for things to get back, you know, to get back up to speed. And when we’re talking about now, it’s like essentially a global crash, a global recession. And it will be interesting to see who’s able to recover from this, because this is it’s not just that we’ll be able to get things back up and going again.

S4: You know, once this is all over, if it is ever all over, it’s like who’s going to be able to survive and manage, you know, to come out of this unscathed and just get in, had the infrastructure to get started again.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S10: You don’t want to sound like a business school jackass, but it is like a test of leadership and resiliency and flexibility for these leagues and corporations. And who is going to be able to figure out how to adjust on the fly, how to modify schedules, deal with all of these problems and figure out how to make it work? It’s going to be really telling. I think there are just all these really small things that we don’t think about, like, you know, scouts are, you know, unsure about whether they’re going to have to spend all this time on the road looking at at players and I think are concerned about what the ramifications are of all that travel. One thing that had not occurred to me that I saw somebody writing yesterday is like what’s going to happen to my NBA fantasy league, which is very, very funny. But it it basically throws a wrench into every possible thing.

S7: A wrench could be thrown in. So I guess we’ll just be simulating the rest of the season on NBA 2K. Stefan, I will I will control the Pelicans.

S13: You know, in one way, this is kind of as unprecedented as anything we’ve seen in sports since World War 2 because we saw the labor fight. This is it. You know, we’re waiting for TV contracts to come down the pike. We’re negotiating a new deal. This is something where nobody can fight over. And there are there are provisions in these labor agreements with leagues that exempt the leagues from having to pay the players in the event of epidemics. Those are listed, that foursome as you’re in these in these contracts. Will the NBA and Major League Baseball and the NHL enforce that? How will they recoup all of this lost revenue? Will the players who do get paid? I mean, these are going to be billion dollar questions that are going to have to be resolved.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: They’re going to be sponsors that are able to recover from this, too. I mean, you know, this I mean, the people that know that pay to put these games on, they’re going to they’re gonna be laying off people and unable to you know, they’re not going to have the same budget in a few months that they have now. It’s just gonna be really. Called to to get our minds around.

S4: Would even sponsors will be there when this all comes back? And how many they’re going to lose? Like from the local sponsors to big national ones that are, you know, struggling as it is already in a tough economic year.

S3: If they’ll even have the money that they that they used to have to put on and sponsor these games.

S10: Well, it’s gonna be really interesting to see what happens with March Madness, because that, I think, is the height of contradiction and hypocrisy in American sports. We all love watching it while understanding.

S1: You know, in our brains that a lot of, you know, what underlies it is immoral and wrong just because of the way that the revenue is distributed and not distributed. There’s so much joy around it for the players, for fans, for non-sports fans, for people watching at home and in bars, filling out brackets.

S7: It’s a communal activity. We’re not going to have like the office pool this year because people aren’t going to be in their offices mostly. But it’s a time when sports transcends sports and that’s really great. But it’s also kind of dark for all the reasons that I laid out before. It seems impossible like we’ve talked about players maybe going on strike to protest during March Madness. No, that’s not ever going to happen. It couldn’t possibly happen. And so the thought of either, as we’re recording now on Thursday, the games being held without fans or the tournament not being held at all for me, you know, the NBA is suspending its season. It feels intense and unexpected and bizarre. But maybe that would actually make it hit home even more for me personally.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Yeah, I don’t think anybody miss March Madness is such bad basketball. So, yeah.

S7: Thanks, John. Yeah. I just want you to follow soliloquy. All right. Here’s my lot. Here’s my last thought. The ultimate test here would be the Super Bowl. And the NFL has kind of dodged this by not being in season 0. They can’t have the draft as an event like who gives a shit. That would have been amazing to see what kind of like pretzel twisting logic that would have been employed to make that game happen. I just cannot imagine any circumstance if the virus was like literally attacking people in their faces in a visible way. I could not see Roger Goodell or the networks or the sponsors like saying, you know what? We’re just not going to have the Super Bowl this year. Like even more than the Olympics. I just cannot fathom that.

S3: Well, I mean, just as an example of how high regard we hope football and society, I mean, I was just yesterday that Virginia Tech canceled school sponsored events before April 30th with more than 100 people.

S9: But at the same time announce that they still plan to hold a spring game on April 18.

S7: Well, that’s the spring game. You can’t cancel that.

S3: Yeah, right. You can’t cancel. We didn’t take spring game. I mean. Yeah, but I mean, just that that gives you a sense of how important football is in American culture.

S4: I’m pretty sure there would be some sort of logic about what we need to rally around something right now. You know, this is a way to show that Americans are together.

S11: If we get a big enough American flag, then everyone will be safe.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S13: All right. I have one last question, though. If the NBA season drags into July and August. Can they draft players and have them play this season? That would be fun.

S3: Great question. Well, fortunately, none of the players coming out this year good enough to be helpful.

S14: So. Right. If this were last year.

S3: Oh, yeah. I mean, imagine getting Zaillian. Are they even going to be able to do that? Because don’t players have to travel? They have to go to all these workouts in different towns. I mean, how do you even get it right? Like even logistically, that sounds like ridiculous.

S14: Yeah. I’m looking forward here. Joel, I’m trying to get something to think about it for the next four months while there’s no sports being played.

S10: All right. Well, we’ll figure out something to talk about on Monday. I hope the listeners are hunkering down. And you know that the only the only care known care is listening to podcasts. That’s what I’ve been told. I’m not a doctor, though.

S4: Wash your hands, please. God. Say that again.

S10: That is our emergency show for today. Thank you very much to Rosemary Bellson and Janet Thomas for helping us out with production and editing, filling in for Melissa Kaplan. Listener pashas and subscribe or just reach out, go to Slate dot com slash hang up. You can email us at Hang-Up at Slate.com. For Joel Anderson and Stefan FATSIS, I’m Josh Levine, remembers Alma Obeidy. And thanks for listening.