The Pro Sports Pandemic-Leadership Report Card

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We grade four league commissioners on how they’ve handled, or been too hands-off about, protocols in the age of coronavirus.

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Later tonight, the NBA resumes its 2019-20 campaign when the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans tip off at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex within Walt Disney World. The league’s approach, which adheres to a 113-page document of protocols outlining strict isolation and mitigation measures, has been described as operating within a “bubble.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t favor the phrase, but he has to be enjoying all the praise being thrown his way, particularly on the heels of announcing that precisely zero of his players have tested positive for coronavirus each of the last two weeks. (The WNBA, which kicked off games on July 25, is stationed in a similar bubble setup at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, though accounts of their accommodations have been mixed at best, and  several players tested positive as recently as three weeks prior to competition.)

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, concretized far more flexible parameters concerning players’ off-field movements before initiating an abbreviated 60-game ledger on July 24. And already, one club — the Miami Marlins — has been gripped by an outbreak that’s sidelined 17 players and two coaches as of this writing and put its, and MLB’s, restarted season in serious jeopardy.

With the NHL set to experiment with a frenzied playoff format taking place entirely in Canada this weekend, and the NFL pledging to proceed with business as usual on Sept. 10, it’s not too early to assess how each of the four major American professional sports’ commissioners have acquitted themselves as leaders. So without further delay — whether or not one feels this whole conversation should be deferred until 2021 — here’s how we grade the ultimate shot-callers’ pandemic-era poise.

Related: How the Pandemic is Driving Innovation in Sports Business

The League: Major League Baseball

The Commissioner: Rob Manfred

How’s He Leading? It hasn’t been an easy half-decade on top for Manfred, who just weathered the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing controversy before the pandemic torpedoed his 2020 season right in the midst of spring training. He has had to contend with a tenacious players union that was fairly intransigent when it came to limiting off-field comings-and-goings, but ultimately MLB’s mitigation efforts — which rely largely on individual accountability as clubs travel from one regional city to the next and attempt to rein in familiar, touchy-feely in-game rituals — are far too vulnerable to further viral spread, as we’ve already seen. And although laissez-faire managers and undisciplined players aren’t helping, it’s Manfred who looks most exposed as an ineffective administrator.

Grade: C

The League: NHL

The Commissioner: Gary Bettman

How’s He Leading? For once, the league’s oft-maligned longtime leader looks prescient by comparison. The decision to relocate north of the border — to a pair of sites in Edmonton and Toronto — for a fast-and-furious 24-team playoff tourney makes both practical sense and piques anticipation for what is already the NHL’s most widely watched run of games. And given that MLB’s lone Canadian-based franchise, the Toronto Blue Jays, weren’t even OK’d to touch down in the country and have been exiled to Buffalo, New York, Bettman’s early commitment to get out of dodge looks downright ingenious. As for his boasts that 2020-21 will be hiccup-free, he sounds a bit more like the next guy on our docket. 

Grade: B+

The League: NFL

The Commissioner: Roger Goodell

How’s He Leading? Well, one front — acknowledging players’ rights to express their feelings about what’s going on in the world outside of the gridiron — Goodell has finally evolved beyond his reputation as hopelessly in thrall of team owners’ wants and wealth. That said, he and the NFL have been characteristically hubristic from jump when it comes to the pandemic, hyping draft picks and free-agent activity like it were 1999 and going full steam ahead with plans for a steady 17-week schedule at all 31 stadiums, fan attendance be damned (though they were slow to concede to that hard truth). And even this month, players were vocal about feeling unprotected from the inherent risks, prompting assurances of more robust testing procedures. Effectively, the NFL is MLB inverted: The players are forcing their league to properly insulate them from the virus (there have been dozens of positive cases heading into training camps), despite Goodell and the NFL’s comparatively cavalier tone. We’ll see how Goodell responds if and when a Marlins-like crisis comes to fore, but for the time being, he’s mostly taking cues from his personnel rather than charting a consoling course.

Grade: C+

Related: Niche Sports Leagues Entrepreneurs Can Learn About, and Profit From

The League: NBA

The Commissioner: Adam Silver

How’s He Leading: By example. And definitively. As alluded to earlier, he spearheaded the immediate compilation of comprehensive instructions on how all players and personnel are expected to comport themselves. And this thing is detailed, down to who can swim in which pool at the complex and how to properly procure snacks on-site. Silver got some flack back in March for hoarding tests when there was scattered public access to them, and there is certainly still a pertinent debate about whether sports should be prioritized by private labs as case counts surge across the country. But the facts on the ground are that sports are back, whether it’s our personal preference or not. And Silver has at least led the way in ensuring that his league won’t be responsible for compounding community spread and further burdening frontline workers. That he has the virtually unquestioned support of the league’s biggest stars speaks as much to their values as Silver’s influence, but considering that the NBA was once a cautionary coronavirus tale (see: Rudy Gobert), the turnaround in perception and reality is remarkable.

Grade: A

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