Looking forward to pro sports after COVID blackout

Looking forward to pro sports after COVID blackout

The return of professional sports — even only on television — after four months of darkness is a needed respite for this sports-crazed country… unless the continuing threat of COVID-19 forces a longer shutdown.

In any event, the games will be profoundly affected. Any contests will be played before empty stadiums. If multiple players or team officials test positive, will the season be suspended? Already there are warning signs with baseball's Florida and Arizona training camps shutting down due to new virus cases.

With a dramatic change in public and political opinion on racial justice, professional sports no longer will be able to only pay lip service. About 70 percent of the National Football League players are African American, while very few coaches and almost no executives are.

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Let's deal here with the major pro sports: baseball, basketball and football — as college athletics face different challenges.

Since I'm a hack political columnist, I consulted my longtime friend, John Feinstein, the most prolific and one of the best sports writers in the country. He is a total stranger to self-doubt, an asset in writing a column.

Here's a look, a grade and a prediction for the three leagues.

Football — assuming there's a season, by no means certain — receives a B.

The National Football League gets most of its revenue from television; it draws huge audiences, and there is stiff competition for the rights. The rich will stay rich. However they have to confront the outrageous treatment of Colin Kaepernick, the African American quarterback who took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination. He then was blackballed by the NFL and viciously attacked — Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBubba Wallace to be driver of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin NASCAR team Graham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Southwest Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid MORE demanded "get that son of a bitch off the field." (The president now is trying to change his tune.) 

With a surge of support for Black Lives Matter, NFL players have made clear they no longer are going to take orders on protests from bullies like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. The great New Orleans quarterback, Drew Brees, who's white, sought to recover from a careless criticism about kneeling when Trump weighed in; Brees took on the president, reclaiming leadership in the Saints' locker room.

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Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized this month for the League's opposition to players’ protests and said it'd be good if a team signs Kaepernick. Some say he should go further. “I will buy Goodell's sincerity when he kneels with the players on opening day if there's an NFL season,” Feinstein told me.

Two predictions: On that first NFL Sunday, most players and coaches will take a knee, and President Biden next year will give Kaepernick the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The National Basketball Association gets an A-minus.

Commissioner Adam Silver, the best in sports, has forged good labor relations.

The NBA moved quickly to shut down when COVID-19 hit, and — barring new outbreaks — expects to restart next month with teams quarantined in Orlando for several months. 

Silver's record isn't perfect. He kowtowed to China, a big market for the NBA, when they said any criticism of that regime's horrible human rights record was unacceptable. But this is an exception. At the start of his tenure he expelled a racist owner from the NBA, gaining more credibility in a predominately black sport.

Prediction: Around Oct. 10, Lebron James, an admirable citizen as well as fabulous athlete, will lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship, his fourth.

Major League baseball gets a D-minus (and that may be grade inflation).

This should have been the first sport out of the blocks; instead, the owners and players union have spent weeks trading proposals and insults with still no agreement.

The millionaire players, some of whom make over $30 million a year, don't engender much sympathy. But it's the owners — more than half of them are billionaires — who've long sought to break the union; a quarter-century ago they were blocked by a judge named Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorNames to watch as Trump picks Ginsburg replacement on Supreme Court READ: Supreme Court justices mourn death of Ginsburg, 'an American hero' READ: Supreme Court justices offer tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg MORE

You'd never know the commissioner, Rob Manfred, is a labor lawyer. “He and the owners have taken forever to get a deal, haggling over what for them is lunch money,” says Feinstein. “Manfred is nothing but a tool of the owners whose next original thought will be a first.”

This isn't new. In the mid-1990s former U.S. Senator Wyche Fowler, a big baseball fan, interviewed to be commissioner. Why would we want a nobody like you, demanded Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, if we could get a big shot like Colin PowellColin Luther PowellHow each of us can help to cure our nation's ills Bush endorsing Biden? Don't hold your breath Red meat for the right wingers will be the main course at RNC MORE? Fine, Fowler replied, if you want to get someone you can't fire. That was the end of the Powell discussion.

MLB, which depends more on gate receipts than football or basketball, saw a 1.1 million attendance decline last year — off more than 4 million from two years before.

Without a credible season and with the breakdown in trust and a strike looming next year, those numbers will look mild.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.