Skip to main content
opinion

As I was walking home with a four-litre boxed wine on a recent afternoon, I ran into my neighbour.

At this point, I’d rather be caught out of doors wearing nothing but a day-glo body sock than carrying a box of wine, but we do what we must.

Once within hailing distance, I shouted, “Don’t worry. I am ashamed.”

“No, don’t be,” she said. “The bottom used to be here [she indicated a point around her waist], but now it’s, like, here [a point at her ankles]. There is no bottom any more.”

This struck me as good sense in uncertain times, when anything short of going fully feral is on the table.

Does eating Pringles over the sink for breakfast qualify as feral? Half-feral at worst, because you a) made no mess and b) put on pants first.

Once you start making these sorts of accommodations with yourself (e.g. going to bed at 7:30 p.m. because it’s getting dark outside), whole worlds open up to you. Maybe you could change everything? Who knew that was an option?

Sports is the most hidebound institution we have, but even it is getting in on this trend. The change part. Not the box wine and Pringles part.

For years, we’ve been told that there is only one way to do sports: more. More games on more days leading to more postseason that sucks up more of the calendar year.

While all this moreness piles up, nothing else can change. Whenever someone suggests some tweak to streamline the game or make things more interesting, someone points at a sign on the league office wall that says, “Tradition.” If it isn’t a marketing innovation, sports are frozen in time.

Suddenly, sports have become big supporters of less. Much less. And change. Lots of it.

After fiddling around with a bunch of ideas on how to start the 2020 season, Major League Baseball has a new brainwave.

The ‘everyone to Arizona’ plan is out the window. Instead, according to a report in USA Today, the league will be reformatted into three divisions of 10 teams, based on geographic proximity. Each group of 10 will only play each other. All games will be held without fans in attendance. The season will start in late June or early July. They’ll have 100 games rather the usual 162.

Will this work?

Of course not. Not as it’s written down here. The plan assumes every jurisdiction is working from the same lockdown rulebook, that the pandemic abates uniformly across the continent during summer and that every stakeholder – from umpires to federal governments – is in agreement.

There is a lot of lovely co-operating going on in the world right now, but that’s not the same thing as everyone agreeing.

As the weather gets brighter and the economy grows darker, the distance between the “park life at all costs” brigade and the “everyone who goes outside is a heedless voluptuary” set will widen.

Sports is a useful cudgel in this argument, in “why can they do what I can’t?” terms.

If you’re going to let the Blue Jays and Yankees play baseball in the Rogers Centre, it is hard to argue no one else is allowed to go to a park and look at the trees. You can’t make baseball an essential service while smaller, more precarious businesses are buried under shutdown orders.

Thus far, all the negotiations about when and how sports can be reopened have taken place in a members-only bubble. Once one of these leagues comes up with a concrete proposal, it will have to sell it to the rest of us. Good luck with that.

But this is not to say some version of baseball’s plan isn’t possible. Is it a 50-game season? Is it 20 or 25 teams playing instead of the usual 30? Is it two teams cocooning for alternating 10-game homestands? For the first time, MLB is figuring out how much it can compromise the way baseball is played and still consider it the genuine article.

Every other sport is wrestling with its basic principles in the same way.

Tennis is getting restarted with a bunch of invitational events that have more in common with barnstorming than sanctioned competition. The NHL’s latest idea is delaying the 2020-21 season until December, giving it a better chance to jam in the current on-hold one. The NBA is trying to decide which is better – a league based in Las Vegas or one played out of Disney World. The NFL’s plan, easily the most radical, is that nothing will change. Here’s a thought: Things will change.

The one point of concurrence is that everyone wants to start something, even if that doesn’t look like the game as we know it. Even if they lose oodles of money. And even if no one can watch them do it.

Because there is no bottom any more.

Like everything else sports does, it’s easy to be cynical about this. Whatever happens, none of these guys are going to starve. They may make a few less million, but they’ll still make more than you and everyone else you know put together.

I prefer to see it the other way. That the easy thing to do here would be sit things out. Wait for the all-clear and start up again then.

We know sports leagues can do it, because they already have. The modern hospitality industry has never been cancelled, whereas the NHL shuts down hockey every 10 years or so.

Which makes sports’ collective efforts at figuring out the least-worst solution commendable. Admirable, even.

Teams love to talk about doing it all for the fans, and we’re finally getting a look at how that works. If pro athletes owe something back for all their good fortune, this effort to entertain a troubled populace would qualify as an effort to do so.

It now seems certain sports will return relatively soon in some form. If nothing else, herd mentality will get them there.

After that, who knows how things will end up? If they are willing to make this much change just in order to play and lose money, how much change might they be capable of once it’s to their advantage? Once you start changing, it’s hard to stop.

This could in the end be the making, unmaking or remaking of sports as we know them.

But that’s a problem we’ll be happy to have as long as there is a future point we are free to have it.