Wars. Earthquakes. Munich, 1972. The 9-11 terror attacks. The assassination of John F. Kennedy. The delicate balance between the moral and economic imperatives faced by games and a society in crisis is something we don’t often think about. Because we haven’t had to. Until now. And other than wars, there was always an idea that it was a matter of days or weeks before things would get back to normal. In many cases, the focus was localized.
Until somebody starts playing games again, all we will have are fuzzy target dates and suggestions and hints.
There will be leaks about this plan and that plan — seriously: we all knew Adrian Wojnarowski was well sourced but scooping a presidential telephone call? Cripes — and most will follow a pattern of, ‘Just get back on the court or field or ice and give us product even if there’s no fans in the stands.’ In order for that to happen, three things are necessary:
1. A place to play and;
2. Ensuring that every player has been tested and;
3. Ensuring the players who test negative stay that way.
For those of us north of the border, the simple fact is professional sports depend entirely on the ability of the U.S to control the spread of the coronavirus, which is why having President Donald Trump convene a conference call of various commissioners on Saturday was a matter of interest.
I said on radio and social media that I am hugely skeptical about our ability to shut down for multiple months, whether we’re talking about sports or society in general. That has nothing to do with denying science or failing to read the details and understanding, at least as much as possible, the trends of this pandemic. It depresses me in some ways to think that way, too. No, it’s about us. You. Me. I fear that a society that celebrates risk-takers and money as much as ours will do little more than pump the brakes, as opposed to applying them.
It matters not whether Trump really believes the NFL can be up and running by September with fans in the stands as he is alleged to have said, any more than it mattered that he wanted the economy open and raring to go by Easter. But the telephone call will play into the worst fears about Trump: that he is a reckless nationalist who needs all the patriotic bells and whistles of an NFL season as he’s running for re-election.
Make no mistake: that is Trump’s end-game. He has been running for re-election since the day he was elected and having baseball games in August with ‘God Bless America’ playing during seventh-inning stretches and flypasts over NFL stadiums in September and October allows him to pay lip-service to progress. The economy may not be back on Main Street but lookie here: there’s football on the television!
At least it was comforting to hear that the message sent out by NBA commissioner Adam Silver was that professional leagues are going to take their cue from public health officials. Here’s hoping they pick the right one (“Paging Dr. Anthony Fauci… when will you be able to throw out the first pitch?”).
Bottom line: I have more faith in Silver, Gary Bettman, Rob Manfred, Don Garber and — I can’t believe this next one — Roger Goodell than I do in the guy who was on the other end of the line.
The Republican National Convention is Aug. 24-27 and my guess is Trump will want stuff humming along as much as possible by then. Otherwise he isn’t going to have much to sell.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• The political back and forth in the U.K. over players’ wages is remarkable. While individual players have made sizeable commitments on their own — as we’ve seen in several North American examples — the Professional Footballers Association has turned down a 30-per-cent pay cut across the board and has left Premier League clubs looking at the possibility of negotiating individual pay cuts with players as opposed to a blanket reduction.
According to The Guardian, PL teams have told players that teams stand to lose over $1.23 billion (U.S.) as a result of the pandemic, but dialogue has been hampered by Liverpool FC’s decision to join smaller clubs in claiming government relief for 80 per cent of non-playing staff wages — Manchester City announced they would not furlough staff — and by comments calling out footballers specifically that were made by Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock.
• The death this weekend of placekicker Tom Dempsey — more later in ‘THE ENDGAME’ — took me back to a winter meetings story about a baseball trade not made. Work with me on this. Dempsey was born without the toes of his right foot or fingers of his right hand, yet he held the NFL record for longest field goal for 16 years. He was just one athlete to overcome physical challenges and have a successful career. Another was Jim Abbott, the left-handed pitcher who was born without a right hand. Amazing athlete, who would quickly slip his glove onto his left hand after delivering a pitch and could field the hell out of his position. In college, at least, he could also hit.
I think it was a winter meetings in Louisville where not much was happening for the Expos and general manager Dan Duquette, knowing we were all thirsting for something to write, let it slip that he had been in talks to acquire Abbott but that those talks had fallen through. Abbott pitched 243 of his 263 career games in the American League, before starting 15 games in the 1996 season for the Brewers, who were by then already in the National League. Abbott was just 2-for-21 as a hitter that year but he was 31 and well into his twilight years. I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of him handling a bat in the NL at the height of his career.
• Interesting discussion this week with Dante Bichette, the former Major League outfielder who is Bo Bichette’s father, who suggested his son and other players are adjusting to what amounts to an “early off-season mindset.” That, plus comments from Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins that the pandemic has essentially set pitchers back to where they were in January adds a couple of puzzle pieces to the reality of how the game will start up again.
• Things I learned this week: when Reggie Leach and Bobby Clarke played junior hockey for the Flin Flon Bombers, they also worked in the mines. Not in the summer, mind you. In-season. Before practice. As Leach told us on Writers Bloc, they were there to play hockey and be tough. Wow.
As I noted above, we lost Tom Dempsey this weekend and the generations that have grown up with analytics and fantasy football have no clue what that means. There are, I would argue, few NFL numbers that are immediately noteworthy and require no explanation: you say them and the rareness of their achievement stands the test of time. One is 2,000 yards rushing. Only six players have accomplished that feat. The other, I would argue, is a team record: 16-0. But for the longest time, the number ’63’ stood out as equal parts bench-mark and impediment, almost as an ‘I dare you’ number.
That was the length (in yards) of the field goal Dempsey kicked for the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 8, 1970, in a 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions. His kick shattered the record of 56 yards, set by Bert Rechichar 17 years earlier. Sixty-three stood up for four decades, until Matt Prater booted a 64-yarder for the Denver Broncos in December 2013. Jason Elam (1986), Sebastian Janikowski (2011), David Akers (2012), Graham Gano (2018) and Brett Maher (2019) also equalled Dempsey’s 63, with Elam’s hoof coming 16 years after Dempsey.
Dempsey, who suffered from dementia and whose family says his death was due to complications from the coronavirus, passed away at the age of 73 in a retirement home in New Orleans that was on a list of homes being “monitored” after a cluster of fatal COVID-19 cases, according to CNN.
His daughter, Ashley, told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that although the family could not visit the home she was able to speak to him one final time by video chat. Dempsey was born without the toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand. His stub-toed boot was controversial and his straight-ahead style was an outlier at a time when teams started employing side-winding, soccer-style kickers. The NFL eventually outlawed Dempsey’s style of shoe and four years after his record-setting effort the NFL moved the goal-posts 10 yards back to the end zone while adding a rule that opposing teams would get the spot of the ball at the point where the field goal was missed.
At a time when we consumed media differently, and without the 24-hour news cycle, Dempsey’s kick achieved an almost cultish recognition. Some of us had to wait until the weekly NFL Films package to catch it. The Saints we watch now weren’t your father’s — or, my — Saints. They stunk, and for the longest time Dempsey and Archie Manning were the only things you could hang your hat on as a Saints fan. The kick was way cool then. Still is.
Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 1-4 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. You can also hear us live on the Sportsnet app, at Sprtsnt.ca/590listen, or tell Google or Alexa to “play Sportsnet 590.” Rate, review and subscribe to our podcast here.