Can Sports Leagues Really Pull Off Social Distancing? Here’s A Closer Look At Proposed Solutions

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We’ve made it folks. It may have taken a bit but sports are slowly starting to emerge from their contagion-induced slumber.

Last weekend, NASCAR made its return at Darlington Raceway with The Real Heroes 400 (albeit in a somewhat unfamiliar form). Instead of a typical weekend full of events including qualifying and practices, the schedule was altered to reduce the amount of time personnel spent at the track. Masks were also required for team members who weren’t already wearing helmets and temperatures were taken upon arrival.

Oh, and the race was held without the usual collection of screaming fans filling the stands, as was the case earlier this month at UFC 249, which also featured a number of measures to keep people safe but ran into a bit of a road bump when one fighter was forced to withdraw after testing positive for the thing the organization was hoping to avoid.

It’s reasonable to assume this is what we’ll see as more sports gradually get up and running again: familiar yet undeniably different versions of their pre-pandemic selves, with leagues using science, government guidelines, and some good ol’ fashioned common sense to dictate the precautions they ultimately adopt.

I am decidedly not an infectious disease specialist so I’ll put my faith in the experts when it comes to determining what’s necessary to promote the health and safety of everyone. At the same time, I’d be lying if I said I’m not a bit worried some of the potential solutions could result in our favorite sports morphing into barely recognizable and bastardized versions of what we’re accustomed to.

There are definitely some lessons we can learn from the successful return of both NASCAR and UFC, although it’s worth noting they have fewer logistical issues to deal with compared to the NHL, NBA, or MLB, as they only host one event in one location at a time as opposed to having games played at over a dozen venues on any given day during the regular season.

The most common suggestion that has popped up to address that problem as leagues try to position themselves for a restart is the use of neutral sites, as we recently learned the NBA might have teams flock to Orlando to play games at Disney World.

MLB owners, on the other hand, have approved an abbreviated 82-game schedule that would use home stadiums in states and cities that would allow them to host games but would only feature contests between teams in the same division in order to minimize travel.

I like the idea of keeping the number of arenas and stadiums that are being used to a minimum. However, this plan still requires hundreds of people to be in the same venue at one time. In order to pull off an NHL game, for example, you don’t just need the upwards of 50 players and coaches on the bench but also trainers, referees, essential arena workers, and broadcast crews.

This isn’t an issue that’s unique to hockey, as basically every other sport would find itself in a comparable situation. Yes, limiting the number of places used for games would in turn lower the overall number of people who could serve as a potential catalyst for yet another stoppage but you’re still dealing with a fair amount of risk.

It might not be the ideal solution but basically every single remedy is going to leave something to be desired—including how to handle the inevitable contact between athletes in sports that can’t be played without a little bit of physicality.

While NASCAR has the inherent advantage of its drivers being enclosed in a car, the UFC doesn’t have that luxury. Fighters obviously have to break standard social distancing guidelines, as Dana White would probably have a tough time selling a pay-per-view with a fight card comprised of bouts where a safe six-foot distance is enforced.

The NBA is also going to have an issue, as basketball is a very different game if you can’t set screens or box out, and while it’s less of a problem for the NHL, you have to wonder what’s going to happen when it comes to battling for the puck on the boards or hashing out problems that have traditionally been settled with fists (the MLB has already warned there will be severe punishments handed to anyone who fights this year).

I can only assume most sports will likely go the same route that NASCAR and the UFC went and have everyone who will be at a game undergo a temperature check before they enter any facilities, which (again) is not a perfect system but still a decent first line of defense.

One thing that we’ll all need to accept is that if we want sports back sooner than later we’re going to have to make one concession that many fans don’t particularly enjoy: saying goodbye to tradition.

Recently, a 67-page memo detailing Major League Baseball’s tentative safety protocols was obtained by ESPN. It featured some pretty standard steps that we’ll see everywhere: testing, social distancing as much as possible, and limiting the number of people in attendance.

However, it also outlaws aspects of baseball steeped in tradition. Under these guidelines, there would be no pregame lineup card exchange. That’s a disappointment because I always kind of dug the old school vibe of that little ceremony but I guess it’s more practical to shoot the umpire a text.

The plan also prohibits certain actions that you see players perform countless times throughout your average baseball game, as high fives, fist bumps, and hugging would be banned along with spitting, tobacco use, and chewing sunflower seeds.

Fielders would also be advised to step away from baserunners in between pitches and first and third base coaches wouldn’t be allowed to approach them. Additionally, baseballs that wind up being touched by multiple players will be removed from the game. It wouldn’t be too outlandish to expect comparable plans from other leagues, but perhaps with some adjustments that would better suit their own unique situations.

Eventually, we’ll see all leagues returning to competition—even if we still won’t have the privilege of watching our favorite teams while drinking some $12 Bud Lights—and though compromises will be made, altered sports are better than no sports.

Sure, it’s going to take some getting used to, but the same can be said for all of the aspects of life that have been impacted by the current situation. If you can adjust to those, you can certainly adjust to whatever lies ahead for the world of sports.

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