Hitting ‘play’ on sports

Hitting ‘play’ on sports

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When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was in Buffalo last week, he announced first that Western New York was to begin phase one of its reopening. His next agenda item was to say that he supported the state’s pro sports teams making plans to get back on the field, court or ice.

“We’re a ready, willing and able partner,” Cuomo said.

As with any other business planning to reopen, sports leagues will need to be cautious and proceed in baby steps. The four top leagues – the NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball – have been working on various scenarios to return, and most likely will play their games inside empty stadiums or arenas. Getting pro athletes back in action is not without risks, as the nation copes with Covid-19, but will come with rewards. The return of televised sporting events will give us not just a feeling that some version of normal life is returning, it will also provide a common language and sense of camaraderie that now seems in short supply.

As the spread of Covid-19 picked up steam in the United States in March, it became clear that people declaring “we’re all in this together” were misinformed. The virus picked primarily on older people, or those with underlying health conditions, and it did much more damage in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, magnifying the health disparities that exist in inner cities and outlying rural towns.

At first, most citizens of Western New York were unified in wanting to flatten the curve through social distancing and other safety measures. As the weeks wore on, however, concerns about economic stagnation, forced family togetherness and lost social interactions wore many of us down. Individuals retreated to their usual corners, and the tension between public safety and unlimited individual liberty became an ideological flashpoint.

Sports can help us cut through the political brambles. We need more ESPN in our lives right now and less C-Span. We don’t care how the Bills’ Josh Allen leans politically, but let’s see if he can throw while rolling to his right. We’ll never know what the Sabres’ Jack Eichel thinks about taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive drug for Covid-19, but we’re anxious to see him take a few healthy slap shots again.

A manufacturing magnate and a professional dishwasher might have little in common, but put them in the same room with a Bills or Sabres game on TV and watch them connect by speaking the language of sports.

The pro leagues are still trying to figure out their roadmaps for returning. The NHL and NBA want at least to hold postseason tournaments so that they can crown 2020 champions. To minimize travel, they would play at several hub sites rather than in their home arenas. The stands would presumably be empty, turning the games into made-for-TV events.

Baseball’s players and owners have not been able to agree over the terms of playing half a baseball season, starting in July. It’s also unclear how the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons would return to action.

The timing of the sports calendar has been fortunate for the NFL, whose scheduled start to the season is not until September. The league has not yet announced plans for how it will stage its games. and it will have the benefit of seeing how its counterparts in other sports fare in conducting their business in the coronavirus era.

For all sports, this will be an iterative process, with a test-and-learn approach. The safety of athletes, coaches and anyone else connected to professional sports must be paramount in planning the turn of competition.

In addition to being spectators, more of us can take advantage of golf courses and tennis courts reopening. Hiking trails beckon, for those who can keep a proper distance away from others.

Having sports to watch and activities to partake in won’t make our other problems go away, but they sure will be nice distractions.

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