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Are professional sports ready to resume play amid the pandemic?

The pandemic halted Major League Baseball's spring training in mid-March. Now, the league has announced it will start a shortened regular season in July. The plan to play 60 games comes after 40 players and staff tested positive for coronavirus in recent days. Amna Nawaz talks to author and sportswriter John Feinstein about the pandemic’s challenges for professional sports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After the pandemic brought spring training to a stop mid-March, Major League Baseball has just announced it will resume with a shortened season next month.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right Judy. Baseball is back, with a twist.

    The agreement with the league comes after 40 MLB players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days.

    Here's what we know: Players will report to spring training on July 1. The regular season will start on July 23 or 24. Instead of the typical 162-game season, teams will play just 60 games. And the proposed schedule includes mostly divisional play to mitigate team travel.

    Beyond baseball, other leagues have made moves to get back to the game. The 2019-2020 NBA season will restart July 30 in Orlando, Florida. And the National Hockey League is moving forward with a multitiered plan to restart its 2019-2020 season. Qualifying rounds for the Stanley Cup tournament kick off July 30.

    We explore the many changes in the world of sports now with John Feinstein, a sportswriter and author who follows all of this closely.

    And he joins us now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour," John.

    Let's talk first about baseball. There was a very public volley of proposals and bickering back and forth in baseball between the players and the league. What were some of the main sticking points there? And how far does this agreement go to address those concerns?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, Amna, basically, they never did agree.

    They had a tentative agreement in place on March 26. The owners decided that wasn't good enough. They wanted the players to take further cuts in their salaries. And it become a very ugly negotiation on both sides, which finally ended with Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred saying, OK, we're going to go to the agreement of March 26, and only play 60 games.

    The players had actually proposed at one point playing 114 games. The more games there are, the more they get paid. The owners wanted to play fewer, so they could pay them less.

    It's a major issue going forward, because the CBA is up after next season. But, for right now, because they bickered so much about the money, they still haven't completely figured out how they're going to deal with the virus and testing and what happens when people test positive, which they're going to, and whether they're going to be able to even have a 60-game season, even with empty stadiums.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you now about basketball too.

    The WNBA was supposed to start in mid-May. They postponed that plan. As we mentioned, the NBA is moving forward with a restart, fewer teams, though, at a single site.

    But there are a lot of concerns from the players, not just about safety, but also that, if they get back to the game now, they're taking attention away from the national protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

    What do you make of all those concerns? Do you see those restart plans moving forward?

  • John Feinstein:

    I think the restart plans will move forward, Amna.

    There are some players who have said they they're going to opt out. Natasha Cloud of the world champion Washington Mystics in the WNBA has said she's not going to play because she wants to be involved in what's going on culturally right now. There are other players who have talked about that.

    But they're going to play. They're going to play in one place. The NBA will be at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, which is right now in the middle of another outbreak. And the women are going to play in Bradenton, Florida, at the IMG Academy.

    There are going to be shortened seasons, the WNBA only 22 games. The NBA was almost 90 percent of the way through its season. And rather than just say, OK, we're going to start with our playoffs, they're going to bring 22 teams, instead of 16, to Orlando, for one reason, Amna. And that reason is that Zion Williamson would not have been on a team, the New Orleans Pelicans, that qualified for the playoffs.

    They want to get him on ESPN as many times as possible. That's why we're going to see the end of the regular season before they start the playoffs.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should note too every professional league is sort of figuring this out as they go, as is the rest of the country. If you look at what women's soccer is doing, they're already back to playing. Men's soccer says they're going to restart soon.

    Hockey, as we mentioned, still very much figuring out, taking a much more sort of conservative approach. The rest of the country has changed, John. Do you see sports in the U.S. ever being what it was?

  • John Feinstein:

    That's a question I don't think any of us can answer yet, Amna, because we don't know how extensive this is going to be.

    We're seeing now in a lot of places that states opened up too soon, and the disease is spiking again, Florida notably being one of those states.

    I think that it's going to take a long time. If there is a football season, it's going to be with empty stands. The NFL makes so much money off of television, they can afford to play without paying spectators, paying ticket — season ticket holders.

    College football. Do you justify bring students to play — back to campus to play football, if the rest of your campus isn't open? That's a question they're all facing right now. And that's a $4 billion question, because the TV money is so huge in college football.

    So, it's one of those deals where, if somebody says to you they know the answers, Amna, either they're a lot smarter than me, or they're lying to you. Take your pick.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot we still don't know, and a lot of sports fans out there waiting for those answers as well, of course, at the same time hoping everyone stay safe.

    John Feinstein, back with us to talk all things sports, thanks so much for being with us.

  • John Feinstein:

    Thanks, Amna.

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