S1E19: A Return to Sports, a Return to “Normal” Life? / Peter King, Rohan Nadkarni, Grant Wahl

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“I can’t stress this enough. Rudy Gobert testing positive was the best thing that happened for the NBA. It arguably, in many ways, is the best thing that happened for this country. I don’t think people were taking this seriously, Celine, until they found out an entity like the NBA could suspend its season because of the coronavirus.” -Rohan Nadkarni

In this episode, our co-hosts Dr. Celine Gounder and Ron Klain speak to Rohan Nadkarni, Grant Wahl, and Peter King and look at the pandemic through the lens of basketball, soccer, and football to see how COVID is changing the way sports are played. They discuss what these games might look like for fans and players when they resume, how COVID is affecting the business of sports, and what the consequences are of trying to play sports in the middle of the pandemic. Grant Wahl is America’s leading soccer journalist. He spent 24 years at Sports Illustrated, covering college basketball and soccer, and is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “ The Beckham Experiment,” as well as “Masters of Modern Soccer.” Rohan Nadkarni covers basketball for Sports Illustrated. Peter King covers football for NBC Sports, is the author of five books, and has been named National Sportswriter of the Year three times.

This podcast was created by Just Human Productions. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast. We’re supported, in part, by listeners like you.

Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder.

Ron Klain: And I’m Ron Klain.

Celine Gounder: And this is “Epidemic.” Today is Tuesday, May 12th.

Ron Klain: On March 9th, a basketball player for the Utah Jazz, named Rudy Gobert. gave a press conference.

Rudy Gobert: “Not overthink, you know, play basketball, but just be able to attack with efficiency.”

Ron Klain: He got the standard questions, but one question was about the rising concern about the coronavirus.

Rudy Gobert: “You know, there’s not much we can do right now. We’re not gonna stop touching, stop saying hi to each other, or stop, you know, giving each other high fives. But just being aware of it, and, you know, try to have some hygiene, a little more hygiene, especially with the hands. Just be aware of it.”

Celine Gounder: At the end of the press conference, you can see Rudy stretching his 7-foot frame as he gets up from a chair that looks too small for him. He gets ready to leave and then he stops. He bends over, and he touches all the microphones on the table in front of him. There’s some laughter from the press, and Rudy jogs out of the room.

Ron Klain: Two nights later, on March 11th, I was on the set at MSNBC doing an interview with Rachel Maddow, when news came that while Rudy and his team were set to play the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the crowd already in their seats, a stunning development.

Announcer at game: “Fans, due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed. You are all safe, and take your time in leaving the arena tonight, and do so in an orderly fashion. Thank you for coming out tonight.”

Ron Klain: The reason? Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID. The game was postponed. And then, the NBA took an unprecedented step. 

Rohan Nadkarni: I can’t stress this enough. Rudy Gobert testing positive was the best thing that happened for the NBA. It arguably, in many ways, is the best thing that happened for this country.

Ron Klain: This is Rohan Nadkarni. He covers basketball for Sports Illustrated.

Rohan Nadkarni: I don’t think people were taking this seriously, Celine, until they found out an entity like the NBA could suspend its season because of the coronavirus.

Celine Gounder: Why did it take a sports league instead of the government, the White House, the CDC, to make people take this seriously?

Rohan Nadkarni: To be frank, I think it’s because the White House wasn’t taking it seriously. I mean, you had Donald Trump saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to go away in a couple of weeks. It’s not a big deal.’ And I think, the NBA, why it really grabbed people’s attention is because it’s unprecedented. It happened so quickly. I mean, it happened within hours of someone testing positive. I think it was a combination of the shock factor, the idea that something so normal is being snatched away from us in an instant. Uh, I think that’s really what grabbed people.

Rudy Gobert testing positive was an inflection point, not only for the league, but I truly believe our society at large, without a doubt in my mind. I think it’s saved countless lives.

Ron Klain: In this episode, we’ll look at the pandemic through the lens of basketball, soccer, and football to see how COVID is changing the way sports are played. We’ll look at what the game might look like for fans and players when it resumes, how COVID is affecting the business of sports, and what are the consequences of trying to play sports in the middle of the pandemic. As we recorded this episode, the NBA had just announced it would start to reopen some of its practice facilities, but only where state guidelines said it was OK.  And even if the NBA does start playing games again, there’s no telling when people will be allowed in to see the games in person.

Rohan Nadkarni: You know, I was at the first Lakers home game, uh, after Kobe Bryant’s death earlier this year, and there was an emotion in that building that night, and that was, that was an emotion forged through sports, and that happens a lot. I do think something would be lost if there aren’t fans in the stands. But does that mean I think the league should rush to put people in the seats? Not at all. I just can’t imagine it being safe for 20,000 people to cram themselves into one building to watch a sporting event.

Celine Gounder: You know, if you had to imagine what a live sporting event might eventually look like post-COVID, what do you think that will look like?

Rohan Nadkarni: That’s really interesting. I do think there’s going to be kind of like a transition period where players are playing in small gyms or small arenas with no fans. Post-COVID, I do wonder if we might see something like temperature checks. We might see something like hand washing stations or hand sanitizing stations, uh, all around the arena. People making your food, being forced to wear masks, different kind of consequences like that, I think those are the kinds of things, uh, that might stay. So personally, I’m very skeptical of the NBA, uh, coming back this season. I definitely don’t think there’s going to be fans at any sporting events,

Celine Gounder: Do you think the players would lose something without fans to cheer them on?

Rohan Nadkarni: Without a doubt. You know, there’s a reason why if Anthony Davis has a huge slam-dunk, the first thing he does is he gestures towards the crowd and asks them to make some noise. You know, that energy that’s in that building, it’s palpable, and if you haven’t been to a sporting event lately, you might not think its true, but there’s an exchange that happens, both sides are feeding off of each other. It’s tangible when you’re in the building and something is happening, something big is happening, and I think players would miss it a lot if fans are not at their games.

Grant Wahl: In Germany, they actually have a term for these games. They call them ‘Geister spiel,’ ghost games.

Celine Gounder: This is Grant Wahl.

Ron Klain: Grant Wahl is America’s leading soccer journalist. He spent 24 years at Sports Illustrated, covering college basketball and soccer. He’s the author of the New York Times bestseller, “ TheBeckham Experiment,” as well as “Masters of Modern Soccer.”

Celine Gounder: And full disclosure, Grant is my husband.

Ron Klain: So Grant, how do you think playing games without fans affects the players, affects the game, affects what soccer is?

Grant Wahl: It’s crazy, man. I went to an empty stadium game once, uh, in Italy, where there had been some hooligan incident, and so they didn’t allow fans and for the game, and it’s, it’s a completely different experience inside the stadium and for anyone who’s watching on TV, because you could literally hear the players talking to each other. You can hear every foot striking the ball. You can experience it in a completely different way.

Celine Gounder: Grant says fans may be more important to the game of soccer than other sports, which has some soccer clubs looking for ways to recreate the live stadium experience.

Grant Wahl: And so what you’re seeing is you’re actually having suggestions of crowd noise being piped into the stadium or on the broadcast itself. Potentially seeing sort of fake fans in the stands, whether that’s CGI or whether that’s actual cardboard cutouts of people, and you know, just talking to players, they say it’s very different as well.

Ron Klain: I want to ask you about what’s been called ‘Game Zero.’ The champions league game played in Milan, where it’s believed that this disease was spread quite widely. What role do you think soccer plays in how we think about the spread of coronavirus in Europe?

Grant Wahl: You mentioned this Game Zero, which has gotten a lot of attention. It was this champions league game, uh, between the Italian team Atalanta, uh, which is based in Northern Italy and Bergamo and, uh, Valencia from Spain. This was an outdoor stadium atmosphere. So this wasn’t like an indoor setting, and yet, there was a lot of transmission of the virus that took place in that stadium, and experts believe that this game, where you had a full stadium in Milan, was a huge reason why coronavirus became such a hotspot in Northern Italy.

Celine Gounder: But soccer could have some important lessons for the U.S. when it comes to eventually re-starting professional sports. Countries like Germany are planning to start playing again this weekend.

Grant Wahl: It’s no coincidence that the countries that have done the best in their response to the coronavirus are now able to seriously, uh, embark upon restarting sports. And so you have Korean baseball starting again, and it’s on TV here in the US. Uh, and you have the German Bundesliga, being the first major European soccer league to start up again. Now, they’re going to play in empty stadiums, and everyone sort of understands that empty stadiums are going to be part of, uh, global soccer, maybe even beyond this calendar year, but at least Germany is in a position where they have dealt with coronavirus far better than the United States has, for example.

Ron Klain: So soccer starts in Germany in a few days, but once it starts, what happens when a player tests positive? What procedures have, at least the Germans, put in place for either the team, or the opposing team, or whatever’s going to happen when is inevitably the case that someone who plays in one of these games winds up testing positive?

Grant Wahl: Yeah, I mean, they put them into quarantine. And this is a procedure they’ve been very publicly cognizant of getting out there. Like we know we’re going to have some positives and, and those players are going to go into quarantine, and any players they’ve been around are going to go into quarantine. So there is a concern that like, you know, you may not have enough players.

Ron Klain: I mean, in soccer there is no social distancing. If you’re one of the 11 on that field, you are brushing up against every one of the other 11 out there, except perhaps maybe the goalie. And so if someone on the field tests positive, that means literally the other 10 players on your side and the 11 players on the other side, they’re all gonna get quarantined?

Grant Wahl: And that’s the question, right? Because like, when the NBA decided to suspend its season back in March, that was when they realized, Oh, Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz tested positive. This is going to be a real issue now. You know, having players getting the virus, and so I do think that’s going to be something to watch in Germany is, are they going to be able to keep playing games? Are they going to be able to have enough bodies out there because they’re going to continue testing the players, and they are going to quarantine players in hotels, I think away from their families too. And so, that becomes a real concern.

Celine Gounder: Here in the US, Major League Soccer suspended its season just after the NBA. But they’re starting to train again. Well, at least as much as they can with social distancing.

Grant Wahl: I spent a lot of time talking to the different MLS teams during this stretch, and what they told me is, you can only have so many Zoom meetings with your players and send them so many self workouts. Like, you need to become a team again, even before you can think about playing actual games. They basically need to go through another preseason.

Celine Gounder: So let’s say soccer does restart safely this summer. All these scenarios assume no fans in the stadium. No fans in stadiums presents different problems for MLS than other leagues.

Grant Wahl: MLS still relies far more on ticket sales as part of its income than it does on television rights. Television rights actually provide most of the vast majority of the income for most big sports leagues. That’s not the case for MLS. And so, for them, playing in empty stadiums would be an even bigger hit than it would be for other leagues, where you at least have so much in terms of television rights. So I think that’s going to have an impact on how MLS approaches when they start playing games again. They’re still talking about wanting to play the whole 34 game regular season, and we’re starting to run out of time for MLS to be able to do that, but it’s more important to them to be able to play in front of fans, just in terms of the bottom line

Ron Klain: The last sport we’re going to look at is the other football. the NFL, the American football league. While other leagues like the NBA and MLS saw their seasons interrupted by COVID, the NFL hasn’t been affected yet. Their season doesn’t start until fall.

Peter King: This season is supposed to start exactly four months from right now, on September 10th.

Ron Klain: Peter King covers football for NBC Sports.

Peter King: That first game is supported to be hosted by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Ron Klain: Of course, football isn’t just a game. It’s an entire happening, and tailgating is a big part of that. Peter says that a typical scene at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play, is an all-day event.

Peter King: If you show up at 8:15 in the morning, you can drive through the parking lots outside of Arrowhead Stadium, and you will see 30,000 people at that moment, out grilling, out, drinking beer, out having one of the great days of any of their years.

Ron Klain: That’s what you would expect to see, but this year, with coronavirus and the pandemic, we’ll have to see what happens.

Peter King: If the game is played on September 10th, and if there are no fans in the stands, we’re going to see a very, very, very weird event. And I’ve asked a bunch of players about it in the last two or three weeks, what would it be? What would it be like if you didn’t play with fans in a game? I’m hoping for the best, we all are, but in the immortal words of the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, “Hope is not a strategy.”

Ron Klain: Peter says that the NFL is thinking through many different scenarios, but so far, they’re moving forward as if it were a normal season. Well, maybe.

Celine Gounder: Do you think it was a good decision for the NFL to move forward with the draft?

Peter King: I do. It basically showed many sectors of the United States that, hey, look, you know, the general manager of the New York Jets, Joe Douglas, he’s trying to make a pick, and he’s got his three kids climbing all over him. And you know, what person who’s got three kids and is working out of his house or her house these days, doesn’t have three kids crawling all over him or her during the course of the day? And I think it was almost a charming thing for the NFL to do. It was, it was kind of lovable, honestly. And I don’t think I have ever used the word lovable with the NFL.

Ron Klain: Besides holding a virtual draft, Peter says teams in the NFL are taking some unprecedented steps to minimize the risk of infection when the games are played.

Peter King: The Texans hired a team hygiene coordinator. Okay, so what does that mean? It means that this person is coming into the Houston Texans facility at NRG stadium, their home field, and that person is going to be responsible for directing the cleanliness and sanitation of every one of the team facilities, 24 hours a day. It’s, it’s quite honestly a tremendous responsibility. So in other words, that person is responsible to make sure that no one gets COVID-19 and so that’s, that’s a tough job. But I think more and more teams are going to follow that lead.

Ron Klain: And Peter mentioned something that hasn’t been discussed with these other sports. Football, like the others, may see an upcoming season that’s different, but football seems willing to also let that season be unfair, and that might be the only way there’s football played this year.

Peter King: Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, said basically that it has to be exactly the same rules for every team, for all 32 teams. If one team cannot be in its facility, all 32 teams will not be in their facilities. So I think Roger Goodell really earned a lot of style points, quite honestly, in that he basically said, we’re going to be egalitarian for all. But I think more people around the league right now are thinking that Roger Goodell has to drop that, and he has to basically convince the owners in this league that this is going to be an uneven year. It just is. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. Maybe some teams in states that are not ready to fully open like that are not going to be able to play all their normal games at home. And maybe some teams will be able to have fans and some teams won’t. And don’t mean to be flippant about this, you’ve got to take a chill pill about the rules this year, because I think the rules are going to be very weird. They’re going to be different, and for some teams, they’re going to get every break and for other teams, it’s going to be bad. But I think most people feel like the benefit will be actually having the NFL have a season, rather than not have a season at all, if it has to be exactly the same for everyone.

Ron Klain: Beyond these health concerns, there are also labor considerations that influence how leagues like the NBA and NFL handle COVID. Here’s Rohan Nadkarni again.

Rohan Nadkarni: The NBA, the labor is just much more empowered than it is in the NFL, and I think that changes the response a lot. I think whatever happens in the NBA is going to be done with a lot more input from the players. The NBA skews a little more younger, a little more diverse. That, uh, to be perfectly frank, I could see, uh, you know, NBA fans maybe being a little bit more careful, uh, in their response than NFL fans. I can only speak from anecdotal personal experiences, but the NBA is a little bit more purple, as most of the NFL, which can skew a little bit more red, I think. So the dynamics of the leagues, in terms of their labor, are very different, and then also the people who consume those leagues, I think that will kind of change the response to how they proceed.

Ron Klain: Peter King says football in particular is going to be under public pressure, maybe even political pressure, to play their season.

Peter King: My biggest fear about the opening of the NFL season, whenever it does happen, is that there will be some external pressure on the opening of the NFL season, and the external pressure could come from the White House. And again, I don’t think that the NFL would ever do anything where they’re consciously doing something that is against best practices of any kind. But I do think that Donald Trump and, you know, the White House, they want to see America get back to work and, and they want to see the NFL play.

Celine Gounder: Is there something special about the NFL in particular in that respect? Something symbolic, maybe about a return to business as usual?

Peter King: The National Football League is simply different. And you might say, well, why is that? And I would say, well, because  in an average year, one third of the living breathing human beings in the United States, will watch the Super Bowl on television, and that more than doubles any other sports event, any other television show in the United States. And I think everybody in the NFL understands and believes that they’re very, very important to the rebound of this country.

Ron Klain: More from Rohan Nadkarni.

Rohan Nadkarni: I don’t think President Trump, obviously, cares for some of the politics of players, like LeBron James or Stephen Curry, who’ve called him out in the past. I will say, unfortunately, it is to Donald Trump’s benefit that the sooner things would turn to, quote unquote, normal for Donald Trump, I mean, the better for his re-election chances. This is obviously not my area of expertise as a sports writer, but I think it’s fairly obvious that for Trump, if the NBA, we started tomorrow, and in people’s minds, if they somehow draw the slightest connection between that sense of normalcy and the president, that’s good for him.

Ron Klain: We know that COVID has a new front in the culture wars. Polarization drives how conservatives and progressives, democrats and republicans, view public health guidelines. Remember when Rohan said when the NBA suspended its season on that night, March 11, it put COVID on the radar for a lot of Americans for the very first time? The NFL might have its own chance to make an impact this fall.

Peter King: I honestly think that this is an opportunity for the NFL because the NFL is so incredibly popular, and it’s an opportunity for the NFL, basically to pave the way for the rest of America.

Ron Klain: Peters says that NFL teams can help normalize things like face masks, hygiene, and social distancing in a way that government sources haven’t so far.

Peter King: I mean, this is almost overly dramatic, but when you watch the news every night, and when you see how many people in the United States, 30-40% of the people in the United States, don’t care about this issue and, I’m not saying football stars and football heroes have to point the way, but quite honestly, I’m hoping this year, that there are a lot of symbolic things that are done.

Celine Gounder: “Epidemic” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. We’re funded in part by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and listeners like you. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast.

Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our music is by the Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Annabel Chen, Isabel Ricke, Claire Halverson, and Julie Levey.

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And check out our sister podcast “American Diagnosis.” You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or at americandiagnosis.fm. On “American Diagnosis,” we cover some of the biggest public health challenges affecting the nation today. In Season 1, we covered youth and mental health; in season 2, the opioid overdose crisis; and in season 3, gun violence in America.

Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder.

Ron Klain: And I’m Ron Klain.

Celine Gounder: Thanks for listening to “Epidemic.”

Grant Wahl Grant Wahl
Peter King Peter King
Rohan Nadkarni Rohan Nadkarni
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder
Ron Klain Ron Klain