Return of sports leagues raises many tough questions

As many North American sports leagues explore new ways to get up and running in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Assistant Professor of Sport Management Michael Naraine says their actions could pose some difficult questions.

“I think we should have sport for the content it provides and the economic benefit,” he says. “But it can create this perception that everything is fine, and that may not be what’s best for the public, as people may not adhere to policies in place for their own safety if they feel things have returned to normal.”

Naraine says the overarching issue of public safety is being clouded by the bottom lines of professional sports leagues.

“If this was not about money, we would just ride this thing out, because the safest choice is to stay home,” he says. “Money rules the major sports leagues.”

In addition to potential health risks to others, Naraine says hosting leagues in specific cities, such as the proposed location of Phoenix for Major League Baseball or Las Vegas for the National Basketball Association, and keeping athletes in tightly controlled areas could pose significant logistical concerns.

“Sequestering athletes in certain areas appears to be a good idea while they play behind closed doors, but when you unpack those layers it becomes tricky,” he says. “Do they have the infrastructure to hold all of those people in one city? And if someone got the virus, would they be kicked out like they were on a reality TV show?”

To appease their own ethical concerns, Naraine believes each league must carefully examine its motives.

“Think of these decisions as a cost benefit,” he says. “At what point do the leagues feel comfortable enough that the health and safety of everyone involved does not outweigh the benefit of the money they will now get back?”

As the leagues appear ready to make countless sacrifices in pursuit of revenues, Naraine feels that even with the numerous questions he has raised, buy-in from the public, including himself, will still be strong.

“While sports may not seem that important at a time like this, it provides an escape,” he says. “We have always had those ingrained opportunities to escape for a few hours in a game or fight, and without that, the realities of our current situations seem to hit us even harder.”

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