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What we should take away from President Trump's sports commissioner call: nothing

U.S. President Trump gushed with optimism about pro sports returning by summer when he spoke with the heads of 13 leagues Saturday. The truth: nothing changes until medical professionals declare us safe from COVID-19.
Jack Gruber/USA TODAY Sports

Jack Gruber/USA TODAY Sports

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke with commissioners and presidents from 13 major pro sports on a Saturday call, which addressed the future outlook of resuming play in the various leagues once the COVID-19 pandemic is contained. Among the league bosses present on the call was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Trump’s outlook was optimistic. He expressed that he believes the NFL season will still start on time in September, and the stance applied to other sports, too. As reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, “Donald Trump also told commissioners that he hopes to have fans back in stadiums and arenas by August and September.”

That sounds exciting, but what matters more is the second half of that Schefter tweet: “though it is currently unclear if medical experts find that to be a realistic timeline amid the current coronavirus pandemic.”

It’s understandable if the fan bases across the various major sports, from Major League Baseball to the NBA, start dreaming of seeing their favorite athletes compete again, and there’s a case to be made that at least a little bit of hope must be sprinkled into our brains during these terrifying times to keep the despair at bay. But once we’re done dreaming briefly, we have to return to reality, and nothing Trump expressed on Saturday’s call moves the needle at this time. This is the same world leader who predicted the virus was "going to disappear" a few weeks earlier. 

The truth is the outlooks for every sport will not change until the qualified medical experts make their rulings on when it will be safe to resume play. NBA commissioner Adam Silver reportedly had the right idea by indicating his league would "would love to lead the way in starting the economy once there was an 'all clear' from world health officials," as reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

Forget fans back in stadiums: the return to sports will follow the COVID-19 societal shutdown in reverse order. Large group gatherings were the first things ruled out, as they were the most obviously unsafe, and they’ll therefore be the last to return. What we’ll see first is what had been cooked up as the last-gasp idea before the major sports leagues shut down: telecasts from empty venues. And even those appear to be months away. In North America, most experts are indicating that April will be the peak month for COVID-19 cases. Sports will thus remain on the back-back-back burner.

Whenever sports resume, the NHL has maintained the position it wants to finish the 2019-20 season. Recently tabled scenarios even indicate the NHL will consider neutral-site playoff series, played in North Dakota or New Hampshire, with no fans and designed purely for television broadcasts. The games could be staggered the same way they have been at international tournaments like the Olympics. As far-fetched as these resolutions sound, they remain much more realistic than seeing 20,000 fans watching playoff games in their home cities by August.

Sooner or later, however, the league will have to decide if delaying the end of the 2019-20 season to squeeze in the playoffs and award the Stanley Cup does too much damage to the 2020-21 season – not just the start of it, but the off-season preceding it, including the draft and free agency. Theoretically, one would have to think the league will set a deadline for a decision on cancelling the season. But, as NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Hockey News via email Monday, the league isn’t there yet. “It depends on how the situation continues to unfold,” Daly said.

And we can assume “situation” in this case does not refer to Trump’s proclamations. The situation will be dictated by the pandemic and what health professionals deem safe behavior. It’s fine to feel hopeful about the return of sports, but we have to walk the line between fantasy and reality. The CDC’s recommendation of not holding any events of more than 50 people for at least eight weeks made late May to early June the best-case scenario for sporting events to resume, and that recommendation was three weeks ago, which may as well be an eternity. We’re looking at July or August now – if you’re an extreme optimist.

The NHL will speak to the Board of Governors in a conference call Monday at 3:00 p.m. ET.

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