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As NBA resumes play, questions linger about pro sports in a pandemic

After a long hiatus forced by coronavirus, the NBA resumes its season Thursday, with the playoffs following close behind. The return comes a week after Major League Baseball began play and days before the National Hockey League resumes. But there are very big questions still unanswered about professional sports during a pandemic. Amna Nawaz talks to syndicated sports columnist Mike Wise.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After a long hiatus forced by COVID, the NBA resumes its season tonight, and with the playoffs soon after.

    It comes just one week after Major League Baseball began its delayed season and just days before the National Hockey League is set to return.

    But, as Amna Nawaz tells us, there are very big questions brewing about the return of professional sports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, even as the pro leagues are starting back up, they're doing it in very different ways. The NBA has moved its league into a bubble of sorts in Orlando, limited to just players, coaches and staff.

    And since mid-July, no players have tested positive. Major League Baseball, however, is allowing teams to travel for a shortened season, and it's now dealing with an outbreak, 19 players on the Miami Marlins, that set off new protocols and delayed games.

    To unpack all of this, I'm joined by syndicated sports columnist Mike Wise.

    Mike Wise, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    I got to say, after all the planning, all the safety precautions, all the protocols in the MLB, days into what is supposed to be an all-out sprint to the 60-game season, this is where they are. Are they going to make it to 60 games?

  • Mike Wise:

    Well, as a sports journalist by trade, Amna, I hope so.

    I don't think it's going to happen. I just think the pandemic is something that is going to be, not just with society, but with sports, and for a long time.

    And if I were the Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, I would have thought seriously about pushing my season back to 2021, and for various reasons. I thought there was an almost, I don't want to call it warped, but a misguided arms race for the North American sports leagues, the major revenue ones, to get back on the field of play as soon as they could, and be the first one to capture American eyeballs.

    I don't know why, because, clearly, as the Miami Marlins have shown, it makes no sense. When you get a third of a Major League roster testing positive for the coronavirus, you're endangering not just the health of the players, but your season.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, in the NBA, it is a very different story, right?

    The season restarts tonight. They announced recently, as I just mentioned, that the 344 players down there in that bubble, that enclosed space, none have tested positive since they got down there.

    So, are there lessons? As you look at how the NBA has unpacked this, are lessons there for other pro leagues?

  • Mike Wise:

    Well, I think the lesson is, you want to become "The Truman Show."

    You want to put everything you can into a bubble, and you want to essentially hermetically seal yourself off from the world.

    I think what Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, has done is pretty amazing, and it should be modeled and lionized across the country.

    I also think, to work in that bubble, there has to be some sort of dissociation and almost a cognitive dissonance from what's happening outside the bubble.

    I mean, we're talking 286 people died in Florida from the coronavirus yesterday. That's the third straight day of record fatalities in the hottest spot in the country. Some of those people who died are mere miles from where LeBron James and many of the players are staying in an opulent Disney-owned hotel and property.

    And so while, on one hand, I admire the NBA, and I can't wait to see the games, there's a part of me that has to say, well, gosh, you really have to — you really have to work hard not to see what's happening outside the bubble, because, if you do, you might realize that basketball shouldn't matter as much as it does right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, with the WNBA, we should mention, they have already restarted their season.

    And there's been a lot of interesting conversations in the league already that the entire league dedicated their season to the memory of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her home by Louisville police earlier this year, and to the Say Her Name movement.

    Before the season opener, we should say, both teams walked off the floor before the national anthem. You have players saying that they're not even coming back because they want to commit themselves to the Black Lives Matter movement right now.

    There is a connection between what's happening in the league in the bubble and what's happening in the rest of the world.

  • Mike Wise:

    This is true.

    And this is where I will give the NBA especially, and the WNBA, some big credit. We're living in an unprecedented era of social conscience among athletes. It's almost a renaissance from the 1960s of Arthur Ashe and Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting the black power salute up in Mexico City.

    These athletes are using a platform to essentially better the world and speak out about society's wrongs and ills in ways that none of us can.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, Mike, so many people really miss sports, and they're really wanting it to come back, but safely.

    Do you think that — do you think that they will?

  • Mike Wise:

    I'd like to think so. I think it's important that sports resembles the resilience that we have going on in society against this pandemic, against this racial reckoning we're dealing with.

    But I'm worried right now. And I think the reason is, is that this doesn't feel like after 9/11, when the New York Yankees had sort of rallied a town and a country together, in the wake of the terrorist attacks. It doesn't feel like post-Katrina and the New Orleans Saints, where they — you could feel a town lifting up an area and this communal hope and bonding happening.

    Right now Major League Baseball resembles the worst of society. The pandemic is going on, and players are catching it. And God forbid if a manager, an elderly manager, gets the virus and ends up in the hospital.

    So, I'd like to see it come back. I just don't know if it's going to anytime soon. And that's about as — that's about as real as I can be about it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will take the realness. We appreciate it.

    Mike Wise, syndicated columnist, joining us tonight, thank you so much, Mike. Good to see you.

  • Mike Wise:

    Thank you, Amna.

  • Note:

    Images provided by USA TODAY Sports.

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