Fans of all sports may have to settle for games behind closed doors

Fans of all sports may have to settle for games behind closed doors

Ballboys wear gloves while handling warm-up basketballs as a precautionary measure prior to an NBA game between the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks in March. Picture: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

LAST week, Stephane Apstein wrote an excellent piece for Sports Illustrated, where she detailed how the ingenious ways large US sporting organisations were planning to get back to staging big events sounded great until science was discussed.

Apstein spoke to a number of medical experts who came to one basic conclusion – sport will not be back anytime soon. And when it does return, people won’t attend games until there is a vaccine for Covid-19, which could be as far away as 18 months.

So what about playing sport behind closed doors? Playing matches in empty stadiums may sound fine in theory but a number of the people Apstein interviewed for her piece spoke about how difficult that would be to pull off in practise.

Her conversations with experts painted a picture of what exactly it would take to make sports vacuums a reality.

Apstein wrote about how before any of this can begin, every person who would have access to the facilities will need to be isolated separately for two weeks to ensure that no infection could enter.

That would extend from players and coaches to reporters and broadcasters, to security personnel. Then comes testing. After the 14-day period is over and everyone has tested negative at least twice, everyone is allowed to begin spending time around one another—but not too much time. Then all personnel must continue to be tested daily.

Apstein teased out a number of other scenarios but there were still any number of ways the dominos in place could fall.

HIGH FIVE: Amed Rosario and Brandon Nimmo of the New York Mets celebrate their win over the Washington Nationals last season. Picture: Rob Carr/Getty Images
HIGH FIVE: Amed Rosario and Brandon Nimmo of the New York Mets celebrate their win over the Washington Nationals last season. Picture: Rob Carr/Getty Images

“What if the person delivering groceries to the biodome walks by someone who coughs on the lettuce and a week later, a player tests positive?” asked Apstein. “Is there an option other than shutting down the whole operation for 14 days?” “No,” said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington.

Apstein was writing about professional sports but it would be much more difficult to justify quarantining amateur players for 14 days or more.

The GAA is big business now but professional sports are all about the bottom line. A source who was in contact with a Premier League chairman last week said that the football season will be finished, but behind closed doors.

“By June or July, they will be playing games solely as TV events,” the source was quoted in the Sunday Times. “If they have to play four games a day at Wembley to get it done, they will do that.”

Steph Curry's Warriors take on the Raptors. Will they complete the NBA season? Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Steph Curry's Warriors take on the Raptors. Will they complete the NBA season? Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The GAA championships wouldn’t require that blitz format, especially when – theoretically - a new season wouldn’t begin until next year. The GAA are also about much more than just getting the season done and dusted for the sake of it.

In any case, nobody knows what can happen next because nobody knows what will happen next.

The projections for sport don’t look great but Professor Luke O’Neill from Trinity College’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology predicted on OTB AM last Tuesday that organised sports will return to Ireland during the summer months.

Professor O’Neill didn’t envisage any mass gatherings until there is a vaccine, but he argued that antibody testing will help to create conditions under which sports will begin to return to society.

O’Neill also said that once the situation has stabilised during the summer months, special conditions could be made to provide the testing and other medical resources needed for these events.

Like everyone else, the GAA are watching and waiting.

At the Special Congress on Friday, the motion to empower to change the championship sailed through.

As things stand, only Congress or Special Congress can dictate the structure of the senior football and hurling competitions.

Once that motion is passed, not a whole lot more can happen. Players and management are craving more clarity on the GAA’s precise contingency plans, which could see action return by July or August. 

The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) have been devising a new series of championship formats but the GAA have to wait and see what the Government do next after May 5, before they can begin planning for any of those scenarios.

Alan Cummins of Cork in action against PJ O'Connell of Clare during 1997 Munster hurling semi-final. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Alan Cummins of Cork in action against PJ O'Connell of Clare during 1997 Munster hurling semi-final. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Sport must wait its turn in the queue because it’s certainly down the line. If governments or medical experts can’t say when the basics of normal life can resume, sport will have to remain at the back of that queue.

Some countries are already beginning to ease restrictions and, as restrictions are eased here, the GAA can begin to make more stable and concrete plans.

If the championships can go ahead, the next question then is what those championships may look like? Exceptional circumstances may require a return to knockout, but the biggest question is what stake the supporters will have in any revised championship format?

Games played behind closed doors may defeat the entire purpose of such a community-based sport but that would still be a far better option than just abandoning the championships altogether.

People are craving a return to normality and, for many people in this country, the GAA is their purest form of normality and daily routine. Not being able to go to games to support their teams would be a deep wound. But at least being able to watch games would be the most adequate replacement possible in difficult times.

Yet before any sporting organisation can arrive at that place, science – and the wellbeing of everyone in society – has to come before emotion.

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