Opening day was another casualty of the coronavirus, leaving millions of baseball fans without even the distraction of the national pastime as they endured illness and lockdowns. President Trump’s message to the major professional sports leagues is simple: Play ball.
It’s the latest example of Trump pushing for a return to normal life even as epidemiologists, rival politicians, and members of his own administration stress caution. And while polls show continued support for the business closures required by social distancing to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, Trump’s best demographics, including middle and working-class men, are among the biggest sports fans.
In addition to the delay in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League suspended play midseason to comply with restrictions that were increasingly in place to cope with the virus. The National Football League is going to hold its draft via videoconferencing April 23-25, and even that has elicited harsh criticism.
“The draft is happening only through the sheer force and determination and lack of foresight from the NFL, frankly,” Adam Schefter, an ESPN reporter who is a fixture of the televised event, protested. “They are determined to put this on while there is carnage in the streets!” Schefter went on to note the likelihood of a truncated NFL offseason. “We all want to see the days where we have that distraction of football, but [organized team activities], that’s not happening,” he said during a network broadcast. “The offseason program, that’s not happening.”
This stands in stark contrast with the president’s message. “I want fans back in the arenas,” he told reporters at a news conference. “By whenever we’re ready, as soon as we can. And the fans want to be back, too.” Trump huddled with the commissioners who lead over a dozen major sports in a conference call over the weekend.
“And they want to get back,” Trump said. “They got to get back. They can’t do this. Their sports weren’t designed for it. The whole concept of our nation wasn’t designed for it. We’re going to have to get back. We want to get back soon — very soon.”
How soon is the question. Some professional wrestling matches have taken place without fans present, but team sports remain a challenge. If one player gets sick, the whole team has to be quarantined for two weeks, disrupting the flow of the season. The Los Angeles Times reported that baseball has considered playing all games in one location, and the NBA is working on a shooting competition between players.
Governors from sports-heavy states have pooh-poohed Trump’s optimism. “I would love to see sports back, help with cabin fever,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters. “But this is not about hopes and dreams and aspirations and what you would like to see … Follow the data, follow the science, let the professional doctors, healthcare professionals tell you when it’s safe to reopen and that’s when you reopen.”
Trump does deal in aspirations, though as Republican insiders predicted of his goal to relax social distancing by Easter, he heeds expert advice too. “But you have to understand, I’m a cheerleader for this country,” Trump recently told reporters. “I don’t want to create havoc and shock and everything else, but ultimately, when I was saying that, I’m also closing it down.”
“Seeing professional sports back in action is something that most Americans want, not just the president’s base,” said Republican strategist Michael Dennehy. “I don’t believe the president has ever given anyone false hope, even around the Easter message. It seems to me, the president is doing his best every day to be optimistic. He was giving Americans hope when he talked about the possibility of getting the economy moving again by Easter. He continues to give hope because he is openly talking about how and when we can get the economy up and running.”
The first regular season NFL game is currently scheduled for Sept. 10. “Everyone wants to get back to normal, and sports is a daily part of so many lives that it will help the country’s psyche and economy when it restarts,” said Republican strategist Mike Duhaime. “The risk is restarting it too early. If it restarts too early and leads to an uptick in cases after we had seen a long-awaited downward trend, that will blow back. After sacrificing March Madness, the NHL playoffs, the NBA playoffs, and opening day, I don’t think too many people will mind waiting an extra few weeks for regular season baseball to make sure we are safe.”
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