Archdeacon: Sports and COVID-19 — ‘Where do we go from here?’

He’s been involved in college athletics for six decades. He was a baseball player, a successful coach, a hall of fame administrator and now a professor of graduate-level courses in sport and yet nothing has quite prepared him for what he’s now witnessing during the coronavirus pandemic:

•The sports world has gone dark.

•Several athletes around the world have been infected by COVID-19 and some – including 11 Olympic athletes in Iran, reports Radio Farda – have died.

•The threat of unsafe conditions for both the athletes and the fans make it a real possibility there will be no college football in the fall or, at the very least, not the 100,000-plus packed stadiums you’re used to seeing at Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.

•Without a vaccine, you may not see any fans at the Dayton Dragons’ Day Air Ballpark this summer and maybe not the sold-out crowds at Dayton Flyers games at UD Arena come winter.

•The reality that some college sports – the University of Cincinnati just disbanded its men’s soccer program Tuesday, Old Dominion dumped wrestling earlier this month, Temple cut seven sports last month – will disappear from many schools altogether because of the financial fallout from the pandemic.

•The belief that some colleges will do away with athletic programs altogether.

•And the threat that some small colleges may close their doors and fold completely.

“I’ve been sitting here thinking how the world is going to change,” Mike Cusack, the longtime Wright State athletics director said a couple of days ago from his home in The Villages, the adult retirement community in central Florida that he and his wife Dot moved to four years ago.

Like the rest of us, he’s trying to come to grips with what life will be like once we manage to get through the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended so much of life around the globe.

For Cusack there is an additional timeline. Since retiring as AD in 2012, he’s been an adjunct professor teaching online courses at WSU and his class “The Role of Athletics in Higher Education” begins in just a few weeks. And then in the fall he’ll be teaching “Current Issues in American Sports.”

He’s reworking each class to address the overriding issue of the day, the coronavirus that has infected more than 2 million people worldwide, and killed over 130,000, including more than 27,000 in the United States.

Over the years Cusack has watched the sports world deal with everything from the HIV health crisis to the numbing terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

“I know how things changed post 9/11,” he said nothing all the security measures taken at stadiums since.

“And I remember the changes that came with HIV, too, especially when Magic Johnson stepped up and got people focusing on it and adopting safety measures.”

But this pandemic – with its global scope and its invisible enemy – dwarfs everything else in our lifetime. You’d have to go back to the Spanish Flu of 1918 to find something comparable.

It, too, stopped the sports world in its tracks. And when everybody thought the infectious wave had passed and society began to loosen precautions – including playing football in the fall of 1918 – the disease returned with a vengeance.

In October of 1918, 195,000 Americans died. By the time the epidemic ended, over 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide had perished.

Even if those lessons have been forgotten, we’re beginning to realize society will be changed by this and certainly the sports world won’t be the same.

The current lavish age of college sports – a time when many top programs have been awash in cash from TV money, ticket revenue and sponsorships that have resulted in opulent facilities, overpaid coaches and army-sized athletic staffs – may be over.

“I just read an interesting story on that addresses those concerns,” Cusack said. “It’s entitled ‘We’re All Effed.”

The headline came from an athletics director at a Power 5 school who told SI: “We’re all effed. There’s no other way to look at this, is there?”

Several schools already are trimming budgets and laying off staff.

Tuesday five upper-tier conferences – including the Mid-American Conference – sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert citing the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and asking for a four-year window of relief in which they could offer below the NCAA’s minimum number of sports, scale back the number of games played by non-revenue sports and limit financial aid.

“The way we did business in the past will have to be changed,” Cusack said. “The big question now is ‘Where do we go from here?’”

Some sports traditions likely over

While everyone wrestles with the bigger issues, one thing everyone will agree on – at least now when less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has been tested for COVID-19 and the vaccine is “12 to 18 months away” as Ohio governor Mike DeWine said Tuesday – is that one sports tradition is now taboo.

The time-honored handshake – a part of sports culture seen before boxing matches, along with football coin tosses and after basketball games – is now considered a possible conduit of the coronavirus and likely will go the way of the two-handed set shot in basketball and the niblick and spoon of golf bags several generations past.

High fives likely will be out as well, replaced by fist and elbow bumps as a way to show sportsmanship and respect.

Cusack sees other changes with teams, whether it’s the way managers handle towels players use to wipe away sweat or how trainers assess athletes with sniffles or coughs.

As for the crowds, the Kiss-Cam may no longer be so popular and vendors hawking food down the aisles may face new restrictions.

Yet fans – even with the precautions and the pronouncement by President Trump that he foresees full stadiums in the fall – seem hesitant to crowd together by the thousands if there is no vaccine.

A whopping 72 percent of Americans polled this week by the Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business said they would not attend sporting events if there was no vaccine. And just 13 percent said they would feel comfortable attending games the way they had in the past.

While many people have suggested drastically reducing attendance at games, others have suggested playing college football with no fans at all.

The push centers especially around the huge TV contracts teams like Ohio State and Michigan have. Because of them, football pays the freight for the rest of the athletic department.

If you take away football and men’s basketball, Ohio State lost $38.8 million on its other 28 sports last year. But football made $115 million.

With all that in mind, Cusack had nothing but praise for the stance he heard OSU athletics director Gene Smith take a few days ago:

“He said, ‘If it’s not safe enough for the fans to be at the games, how can it be healthy for the players?’ And he’s right.”

Cusack also has heard how some schools have said they will test their players every day.

“What about everyday people?” he said, noting a football team might have 125 players and many dozen coaches and support staff.

He said take a place like Tuscaloosa Alabama, for instance. Rather than day after day going to the football team, shouldn’t those tests first be used on teachers and nursing home workers and people trying to open their small businesses?

Sports steps up

Sports used to always be a tonic for troubled times. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted Major League Baseball to continue during World War II to give the beleaguered nation a diversion.

After 9/11, sports teams and athletes calmed a frightened nation and stadiums hosted communal celebrations of patriotism and strength.

But with the coronavirus – when social distancing is needed – sports crowds just add to the problem.

Even so athletes and teams have helped us understand the risk at hand and have offered help dealing with it.

It began when the NBA postponed the rest of its season in early March. Suddenly the threat was real. Soon every league and sporting event followed suit and then we saw athletes facing the same threats that we did.

Since then several sports stars and teams have shown us the best side of humanity. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife donated $5 million to help hard-hit city battle COVID-19.

NHL players have bought ventilators for hospitals in their cities and the New England Patriots flew in one million masks from China for health care workers in Boston and New York.

“We’ve never faced anything like this, but every time we have faced something new, something unknown, we’ve come together and found a way through it,” Cusack said. “And deep in my heart I feel we will this time, too.

“We’re a great country, a great people and we always find a way to band together in our toughest times. And when we do, we come out of it stronger.”

Whenever that happens this time, we may well be wearing a mask, but we won’t celebrate with a handshake.

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