Let's take a moment, as we start week 39 or so of COVID-related quarantine, to mourn the brain power we've collectively wasted worrying, hoping and strategizing about the potential return of sports. It turns out the key to getting baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer back on our TVs and back in our blood was right in front of us the whole time, trapped in the brain of Texas' very own stable genius, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Friday morning, Patrick was kind enough to clue us all in via an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News.
"Long before I entered politics, I was a TV and radio sportscaster," Patrick starts his piece. "I understand that the fans are as much a part of the game as the players, and there is no reason they can’t attend the games when they begin again. I don’t believe Anthony Fauci should anoint himself as the commissioner of sports and tell the owners, players and fans what to do."
Oh, a TV and radio sportscaster. And here we were, worried that we were about to waste a bunch of time reading the opinion of someone absolutely unqualified to make such an important public health decision.
The lieutenant governor then goes on to outline his plan: 30% capacity at stadiums, limits on the number of games any given fan can attend while the restrictions are in place, masks, temperature checks for fans, limits on concession sales and a series of measures meant to speed up the time in which games are played.
In theory, none of Patrick's suggestions sound particularly bad. Physical distancing is good. Facial coverings are an easy step we can take to protect vulnerable members of society. Some people think baseball is too slow. All of these things are true, but can you imagine sitting at an early season high school or college football game in Texas' September heat in a mask or, for that matter, the bum rush to the beer line that will occur as sales get close to cutting off in the fifth inning of baseball games, as Patrick suggests?
Last call behavior is human nature, just like taking off a mask when it gets unbearably hot or you just really, really want to yell at Mike Trout. We don't go to sporting events to be socially responsible.
"This might also be a good time to add a few rules to speed games up a bit. Baseball should limit the time batters can step out of the box to readjust their batting gloves to one time a bat. Basketball should limit timeouts in the last 60 seconds of the game, so it doesn’t take five minutes to play the last minute," Patrick writes. "We can speed up Zambonis to clean the ice. Finally, when it comes to football, if an instant replay can’t be decided in 60 seconds, play on. Heck, the fans at home can figure it out faster than the refs do."
While speeding Zambonis sound fun, Patrick's other rule changes are wolves in sheep's clothing. If batters can't step out of the box, slow-working pitchers would be able to completely freeze them. Basketball coaches who save their timeouts should be allowed to use them to stop the clock and call plays in critical end-of-game situations. There have been plenty of NFL calls in the last decade or so that needed more than a minute to untangle. Patrick sounds a lot like he wants to use the pandemic as an excuse to fix things that annoy him as he sits on his couch, watching.
There are lots of things you could do to make things faster if you aren't worried about the integrity of the game. Play Major League games with a 60-minute running clock, like some kids' baseball leagues. Make NBA games first to 50, all NFL games sudden death and all MLS matches penalty shootouts. If you want to limit fans' contact with each other, limit attendance to those who can afford to buy a luxury suite. There's plenty left to be done to take the tone of the things that makes sports sports and the sense of community that comes with them out of the experience.
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Which brings us to the main problem with all of Patrick's ideas. Even if going to a game under the conditions he suggests is safe — and that's a big if, since keeping bathrooms sanitary seems like it would be a big problem and Mark Cuban has questioned how effective temperature checks would be against someone determined to get into a stadium — none of it sounds any fun.
In all circumstances, sitting at home on the couch with a cold beverage, multiple replay angles and a favorite human or pet sounds way better than heading to a game that, no matter how competitive, is going to have less atmosphere than rec-league softball.
Sports leagues across the world are getting closer to figuring out ways to get players on the field. Germany's Bundesliga soccer league returned without fans over the weekend, and the PGA Tour appears set to return at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth in less than a month, with its own set of precautions for players and essential personnel. Korean professional baseball has been playing games for a couple of weeks now.
Getting back to business for all of these leagues has required, to varying extents, limiting players' exposure to the outside world, making sure they are getting tested and aren't exhibiting symptoms of the novel coronavirus and imagining new ways to present their sports on TV. There's no reason to mix in fans before the kinks are worked out.