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The Lookahead: COVID-19 sports calendar comes full circle after Super Bowl



The NFL has bullied its way through COVID-19 and through all the debate and moral hand-wringing it has developed a most amoral Super Bowl champion: MAGA fan Tom Brady has won his seventh consecutive Super Bowl, a COVID-ravaged state let its masks down to celebrate. Hell, even Antonio Brown managed a touchdown reception and nothing says NFL like an alleged sexual abuser getting another chance at redemption.
And soon now the spotlight will turn to Major League Baseball, with pitchers and catchers scheduled to officially report to spring training facilities a week from Tuesday, despite suggestions that the Biden administration wants baseball to push back its start by a month to increase the likelihood of players being vaccinated. The MLB Players Association wouldn’t even meet with the administration’s representatives. The players want 162 games on a regular schedule and that seems to be the plan, although we could find out more Tuesday when players and the commissioner’s office are supposed to finalize health and safety protocols for spring training.
MLB was the first North American professional sports league to put together something resembling a schedule without putting its players in a bubble and it more or less worked after some early hiccups involving the timing of testing and the delivery of results. The commissioner’s office didn’t use a financial hammer to force compliance with protocols: it essentially made clear that any postponed game would be made up and if a night at a strip club was worth forcing you and your teammates to play 14 games in seven days, well, have at it. That, plus the manner in which the Cleveland organization took one for the team by sending Mike Clevenger and Zach Plesac down to their minor league training camp after a boys night out in Chicago, seemed to send the appropriate message until Justin Turner’s selfishness in the final game of the World Series. Baseball even managed to open its post-season games in Texas to smallish crowds under 10,000 without, it appears, incident.
The NBA and NHL are trying to get through their non-bubble regular seasons and it’s been a test. In the case of the NHL, it’s pretty much conventional wisdom that at least a couple of teams won’t play their entire 56-game schedule, which would likely mean a pivot to points percentage as a playoff determinant. The NBA, as we saw on Friday night, is still challenged by the logistics of collecting and reporting results — and the NBA is doing fewer tests than any other league.
And so the relentless slog continues towards March 11 — the day the Utah Jazz and Rudy Gobert shut down the sports world — but in some ways next week the sports world will have come full circle when pitchers and catchers report. Stuff will look and feel kind of sort of the way it should. MLB showed us that for all the levers in the hands of commissioners it is individual and team discipline that counts. The NFL has shown us that you can bully TV networks to a degree — did you ever think you’d see a 5 p.m. weekday start? — and that not having many fans in the stands gives you scheduling freedom. Baseball’s next big step… having limited attendance at spring training games and then limited fans on a daily basis. Will any team play a full 81 home games with fans at every game? How will that look? How will it feel? The NFL has bullied its way through and in the process managed to keep its off-season calendar largely intact — something folks such as Brian Burke say is imperative for leagues such as the NHL and NBA — and now baseball tries to become the first non-bubble league to pull it off twice, this time with the hope of vaccines and better days in the not-too-distant future.
It’s going to take patience and nuance and who knows what else.

THE LOOKAHEAD
Things I’ll keep my eye on in the week ahead.
• Monday: Vancouver Canucks at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET. You know what we need to do every week on our Hockey Central or Hockey Night in Canada panels: We need to dub one team in the Scotia North as being the ‘Crisis Club of the Week’ and have Burkie weigh in! I got the Canuckleheads right now. My guess is that’s going to continue this week, with four — four — games against the Calgary Flames and that Markstrom fella. Heads could explode. Canucks angst is the best angst. You can catch the game on Sportsnet in the Ontario and Pacific regions.
• Tuesday: Winnipeg Jets at Calgary Flames, 10 p.m. ET. The man who will make the fear go away — Pierre Luc Dubois — makes his first start for the Jets. It’s going to be interesting how Paul Maurice uses his bundle of centres. There’s been something quietly reassuring about his stewardship of this team so far.
• Tuesday: Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. The two best teams in the country from the jump, but this time Wayne Simmonds won’t be around to, um, provide the “turning point.” You can catch the game on Sportsnet.
• Tuesday: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz, 10 p.m. ET. It takes a little work to remember that Toronto still has an NBA team — less now after Fred Van Vleet’s 54 points and another win over another team playing without Kevin Durant — because… man, it just seems like not a lot’s going on there, you know? So imagine trying to keep track of anything else going on in the NBA, where the Utah Jazz are setting the pace in the Western Conference. The Jazz are the best team in the NBA right now, leading in rebounds per game and with two of the best plus-minus guards in the league in Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell has made 621 threes in 246 games, continuing a run that saw him get to 600 threes made faster than any player in NBA history, nine games faster than it took Steph Curry to do so.
• Wednesday: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns, 10 p.m. ET. They didn’t make the playoffs but the Suns’ performance in the bubble set the stage for their solid start to the regular season. Monty Williams deserves some quarter-pole coach of the year love. The Bucks follow this game up with a visit to the Jazz. Could be tough sledding.
• Thursday: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics, 7:30 p.m. ET. The Celtics are one of just five teams in the Eastern Conference with records over .500 compared to 11 in the West. The Raptors can continue to claim a spot in the mucky middle with a win. Catch the game on Sportsnet East, Ontario and ONE.

FAIR OR FOUL?
• Fair: Wondering if maybe we’re not sleeping on the idea of the Toronto Blue Jays eventually taking a run at Jose Ramirez, who fits into this team even more than Francisco Lindor… and would likely cost more. Still, he’s only a year and half older than Lindor, is a switch-hitter who can play third base and second base, and is under control for the next three seasons at $9 million this year plus club options for 2022 ($12 million) and 2023 ($14 million.)
It would take a hell of a call on the part of Blue Jays management, but keep in mind that Ross Atkins knows Ramirez from his time as the Cleveland farm director when the organization was trying to balance the egos of Ramirez and Lindor while they both tried to get into the Majors as shortstops. The Indians might be persuaded to move off Ramirez at the trade deadline and if I’m the Blue Jays I’d put anybody but Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson and of course George Springer in play to get the deal done.
• Foul: Obsessing over whether Trevor Bauer’s “baggage” will become an issue for the Los Angeles Dodgers. First, do not assume that the same morals and sensitivities that exist in the Twitterverse exist in a Major League Baseball clubhouse. Second, despite the fact that Bauer was referred to as an “energy vampire” by former Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd, who is now an analyst on MLB Network, O’Dowd was quick to suggest that in the right clubhouse it’s less of an issue if a “24 and 1” scenario develops. The Dodgers have a strong core, have won a World Series, and Mookie Betts is the guy.
Hockey Central’s Brian Burke says that in a general sense the danger of acquiring a player who has his own agenda can be overcome “if your room is strong enough to bend his will to the group’s will.” So the Dodgers will be fine. The Blue Jays? Not certain how they would have handled a guy like this.
• Fair: Hoping that Jonathan David’s renaissance with Ligue 1 Lille is setting the stage for a big year for Canadian soccer. David, whose 20 million Euro transfer fee from Belgian side Gent in 2020 is the highest-ever for a Canadian player, has scored five goals in his last five games and has seven goals and four assists in all competitions for Lille, whose 45-point haul after 21 matches has only been surpassed once before in their history, in 1949-50.

THE END-GAME
Adam Silver generally gets it right. So I’m wondering if the NBA commissioner’s statements about having an NBA All-Star Game weren’t a deliberate ploy to smoke out discontent among players so that he could tell sponsors and broadcasters to back off. It just seems odd that the NBA and its players’ association would come to an agreement without soliciting the opinions of its star players.
“I have zero energy and zero interest,” LeBron James said of the All-Star Game. “I’ll be there physically, but not mentally.”
Think about it: The All-Star Game was scheduled to be in Indianapolis but was postponed when it became obvious there wouldn’t be fans in the stands, then revived for March 7 in Atlanta. This at a time when the league has managed to re-schedule just three of the 24 games it’s postponed due to COVID-19 and mishandled a Friday night episode that had Kevin Durant on the court for half a game after he’d been in contact with an individual who had tested positive.
Durant, who reportedly contacted COVID-19 last season, has now been sidelined twice this season because of the protocol. I’m not buying that he’s that cavalier. I think the negative reaction from James is exactly what Silver wanted to hear, such is James’ economic and political power.
“We’ve got to all follow the big dog,” was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s response when questioned whether he agreed with James. Throw the networks a prime-time bone using the regular-season schedule if you must and by all means, let the fan balloting continue. But adding an exhibition game in the middle of an already-congested season? Doesn’t sound like the NBA to me.
Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass, with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.


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