Sports are coming back, but they’ll never be the same

LeBron James
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The scene plays like something from another time, which it is, both manifestly and metaphorically. Fifty-eight minutes into the ninth episode of the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, Jordan is captured walking off the floor in the spring of 1998, after the deciding game of the NBA Eastern Conference finals. As Jordan reaches the tunnel, fans lean heavily into the space surrounding Jordan, extending their hands, in hopes of a slap from MJ. Five hands. A dozen hands. Several of the fans touch Jordan’s jersey, his shoulders, his arms. Jordan does not reciprocate, but that is not the point. There is the expectation that he might. And the sense they are sharing his presence. It is a moment beyond just watching.

Sports exist beneath a veil of rituals, some personal (Steph Curry’s pregame shooting routine, for instance) and some institutional (the handshake line following a deciding game in the Stanley Cup playoffs). Rituals do not define, but they enhance; watercolors splashed in the margins to make a painting more vivid. From the theatrical (the singing of My Old Kentucky Home at the Kentucky Derby or giant American flags and military flyovers at NFL games) to the mundane (basketball players casually slapping hands with teammates after made – and missed – free throws or quarterbacks slipping on a baseball cap or winter wool hat when the defense is on the field). Not part of the games, but of the games nevertheless. Some of the most endearing rituals connect fans with athletes.

The Jordan image took me to some other places.

To the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp at St. Vincent College in the summer of 2014. I needed a few minutes with Ben Roethlisberger for a story (about strip sacks), so I waited while Roethlisberger signed autographs and posed for selfies with dozens – maybe hundreds – of fans along a fence line near the practice field. Roethlisberger shook hands, put his arms around fans and passed the equivalent of a small warehouse full of gear back and forth. He slapped hundreds of hands. There were no dissatisfied customers. This is one example: I saw Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ray Lewis and many others do the same things, a vital part of NFL training camps for fans, the removal of the walls that separate players from their public.

To the London Olympic Stadium in the summer of 2012. On a cool, windless evening, Usain Bolt won the 100-meter gold medal and then did what he always did: Encircled the bowl of the stadium, stopping periodically and falling in among a small gaggle of fans, some Jamaican friends, but most of them ticketed strangers who rubbed his head, gripped his shoulders and pulled on his uniform. Bolt accepted phones and choreographed giant group selfies. Again, no dissatisfied customers. And to note, Bolt did this across three Olympic Games, five world championships and many other international track meets in far more obscure places, a joyful sharing that was effortlessly commingled with his victories.

But: Think of the germs.

How many times has a professional golfer walked from a green to the next tee box, separated from the gallery by a thin strand of twine strung between small stakes, only to breach that barrier by smacking hands with the fans who reach across, beseeching contact? How many times has a major league baseball player stood in the dugout before a game, and casually fielded baseballs and other trinkets tossed to him by fans, signed them, and flipped them back into the seats from whence they came? How many times has an NBA player dove into – or beyond – the expensive courtside seats that nudge up against the playing surface, falling into the laps of spectators?

But: Again, so many germs.

Last weekend sports haltingly resurfaced, more than two months into the global COVID-19 pandemic. There were soccer matches in Germany, a professional golf event in Florida and a NASCAR race in South Carolina. There were no spectators at any of these, creating scenes that were vaguely dystopian, yet curiously soothing. Soccer players celebrated goals with exaggerated elbow and fist bumps. Kevin Harvick climbed out of his powder blue No. 4 Mustang after winning the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway, and said, with an empty grandstand behind him, “I didn’t think it was going to be that much different, and then we won the race and it’s dead silent out here.” Four professional golfers carried their own bags and kept their hands off the flagstick (and also raised more than $5.5 million for COVID-19 relief).

Major U.S. sports are planning to return soon. Or not soon. Or possibly not at all in the near future, because in talking with public health professionals for this story, I learned one thing above all else: There is still much about the virus that is either not known or not well understood, an information gap that time will shrink at its own pace.

But on sports coming back soon? Probably.

Because we need sports.

(Although in the midst of a public health crisis involving the deaths of more than 90,000 Americans in less than four months, it’s also prudent to ask: Do we? Not because we don’t. We do. But because asking the question leads to a useful thought exercise in measuring our relationship with the games and keeping that relationship on a leash. The length of that leash will be different for everyone).

In the limbo of indeterminate length between now and normal (normal is presently the most loaded word in the English language), sports will unfold – or, again, possibly not – in a form that is likely both familiar and unrecognizable. According to The Athletic, Major League Baseball distributed a 67-page document proposing stipulations for launching its 2020 season. Among them: No high-fives or fist bumps, no spitting, showering at team facilities “discouraged,” and pitchers using personal baseballs for bullpen sessions. The NHL and NBA continue to explore resuming truncated 2019-’20 seasons in central locations, with no fans. The NFL has scarcely tapped the brakes on its upcoming training camps and regular season, details upcoming. Major college football programs are preparing to bring players back to campus in June, with extensive health protocols in place.

The games we crave will look very different in the near term, and then, presumably, much like our daily lives, drift back toward – this word again – normal. But how far back? This is the question I asked several infectious disease experts, in seeking their vision of our touchy-feely sports world in the time that lies beyond a vaccine. We know the next few months – or many months – will look much like this past weekend. But as those radical changes are eased, as fans re-enter stadiums and arenas, perhaps first at reduced capacity and then eventually at previous levels, how many of the changes might become folded into a new normal, not only on the field, but also in those areas where athletes interact with the public?

“There are definitely going to be short-term changes in what sports look like,” says Dr. Paul Pottinger, infectious diseases specialist and Director of the Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center. “I think there could be long-term changes. I think there should be long-term changes, but old habits die hard.”

Dr. Celine Gounder, infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist, currently working at Bellevue Hospital in New York (and also, full disclosure, wife of my former Sports Illustrated colleague, Grant Wahl), says, “In a sense, any changes we will see in sports, long-term, are an extension of a basic cultural question: How will people touch each other after all this is said and done?”

Erin Bromage, comparative immunologist and Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, whose blog post, The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them, went viral (a word that has recaptured its pre-internet meaning) in early May, for its plain language and measured tone, says, “I do think any changes in behavior we see now are not permanent. I’m confident we will go back to our previous behavior once there is a solution to this particular problem. I don’t see the no-touching lasting a long time after this risk has gone. Touching is just us. It’s who we are as a species. We’ll go back to the things that put us in this situation in the first place… until the next [new virus] happens.”

The handshake looms as the most endangered ritual, both in society and in sports. In early April, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, during a Wall Street Journal podcast, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands again, to be honest with you. We’ve got to break that custom.” Fauci’s words (and many of his other words) have served as a cultural flashpoint; in sports, handshakes are ubiquitous, from the home run hitter rounding first or third base and grabbing the hand of his base coach, to the football player helping a teammate rise from the pile after a running play, and in hundreds of other ways. It has always been understood, and now it is understood even better, that the handshake is a ruthlessly efficient means of exchanging germs with fellow humans. Or players.

Actually, not really the handshake alone. “You touch a surface that has the virus or you shake hands with somebody who is infected, and then you touch your mouth or nose,” says Pottinger. “And people touch their face almost automatically, constantly. The way to limit the risk would be to limit hand-to-hand-contact. It has to stop, somehow.”

This brings to mind the ritual of the Stanley Cup handshake line, where, after the deciding game of a series, teams line up for a civilized and sometimes emotional pressing of flesh in orderly lines at the center of the ice. It is a much-beloved moment of shared respect that belies the days-long combat that preceded it. Discontinuing it would on the surface seem pointless, given that the players have previously spent several hours crashing into and shouting at each other, and initiating even more intimate levels of contact (talking to you, Brad Marchand). But in truth, bare hands are a better spreader than most of those acts. “Maybe if there was a hand sanitizer nearby, right as they came off the ice,” says Gounder, laughing, but not joking.

Further: Helmeted, high-contact sports like football and hockey might have to consider helmet modifications that include a full-face shield, which are currently legal but mostly eschewed in the NHL and not allowed in the NFL and major college football, where eye shields only are permitted.

I described the NFL training camp selfie-and-autograph line.

Gounder: “That stuff is over, unfortunately. It’s not fair to athletes. It’s not fair to politicians or other public figures.”

Pottinger: “Right now, you see owners and league officials taking every possibly precaution to protect the players. And that’s the right thing to do. But then there is the next phase in all of this, where the athletes interact with John Q. Public, and that has got to change. At least until we get a vaccine.” And after that? “COVID-19 is not the first viral respiratory infection we’ve experienced, and it won’t be the last one. Hopefully we come out of this with a better understanding of how we should change things to be better prepared for the next one.”

There are possibilities. “With autographs, make sure the athlete uses his own marker for every signature, not something a fan hands him,” says Bromage. “Keep hand sanitizer nearby. But the selfies, with fans yelling in an athlete’s face, that has to stop.”

Another subculture: The hyper-expensive seats that surround the floor at an NBA game. Players dive into those seats, contacting the public; a player inbounding the ball in front of those fans is far closer than six feet. (But of course, the entire arena is full of germs from 20,000 fans). “It’s possible those fans closest to the floor should wear masks,” says Gounder. “Maybe that becomes the new normal.”

Pottinger says, “People pay a lot of money for those seats, and teams rely on selling them. That might not be the case forever.”

So. Jay-Z in a mask at Barclays? NHL players in shields from forehead to chin? The death of autographs, selfies and handshakes? A needle drifts between unimaginable and inconceivable. But, just more than two months ago, most of a nation, not just sports, closing down entirely and retreating into communal isolation amid widespread death, would have seemed a similarly outrageous prediction. And yet here we are. (The obvious parallel, expressed frequently in recent weeks, is 9/11/2001, after which unthinkable inconveniences swiftly became embraced. One significant difference: We were then a nation united by emotional patriotism).

There are other unknowns in this mix: When will a vaccine be developed? Will it be effective enough – and accepted widely enough – to make mass gatherings safe? Experts say this coronavirus is efficiently spread. “MERS and SARS, for instance, killed many people,” says Bromage. “But they were difficult to transmit. Covid, this one, is very sneaky, and spreads very easily.” The more infectious a disease (measles, for instance), the higher the percentage of a population that needs to be vaccinated to assist herd immunity. However, there is a vocal segment of the U.S. population that opposes vaccination, and that segment is already being heard, with regard to COVID-19, even though a vaccine is likely many months off.

“Many Americans are not going to want to get vaccinated,” says Gounder. “We are already hearing their voices. If a significant portion of the population refuses to get vaccinated, this is not going away. For that reason alone, we can’t really think of sports going back entirely to normal, even if there is a vaccine.”

Another very small elephant in this very large room. It is likely that my business, sports journalism, will be significantly altered in the slipstream of the virus. In the early days of the virus, the banning of journalists from locker rooms was a bit of a public tempest. Most civilians don’t understand how locker room access works, and benefits the reader/viewer, but that’s for another day. Or not. Open locker rooms are likely gone for a very long time and possibly forever.

Other points of access are probably endangered as well, most pointedly the intimate profile interview between an athlete (or coach) and journalist. Many of the best stories of my career included such meet-ups: Appetizers with the Manning family in New Orleans, lunch with Bolt in Kingston, Jamaica, dinner with Pat Tillman at a little restaurant in Tempe… and then breakfast with Michael Phelps 17 years later in a different restaurant in the exact same location. Hanging out with Lindsey Vonn at her mountain home. It feels likely that many teams, colleges and publicists will decide that for a little while – or a long time – interactions like this are simply not worth the newly understood risk. The Olympic media mixed zone, a daily and nightly mosh pit of journalists and athletes from dozens of different countries, all operating on minimal sleep and unfamiliar (or unhealthy) diets? Hard to imagine that survives. None of this is Capital-I important; our world is a tiny version of the larger one, altered.

Each day for sports is both a hopeful step back toward the known, and a tentative venture into the unknown. Whatever emerges in the coming days, weeks and months will be an experiment, but pieces of it will endure. “The longer you practice behavior, the deeper it takes root,” says Bromage. It’s much too soon to know precisely what sports – or society – will look like on the other side. Except that it will look different.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.