In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, professional sports leagues briefly suspended play. The NFL shifted its week two games from Sept. 16 and 17 to January. In the midst of playoff races, Major League Baseball initially announced a one-day pause before extending the cancellation period to three and then six days. The return of baseball on Sept. 17 in some locations, and then on Sept. 21 in New York City, and the return of football on Sept. 23 (and Monday Night Football on Sept. 24), 2001, provided vivid moments for a stunned nation to come together and express its grief and its resolve.
The COVID-19 crisis has led to a suspension of professional and amateur sports far exceeding the shutdowns associated with 9/11 and World War II, and likely to exceed the early termination of the Major League Baseball season during World War I.
For many Americans, the return of professional sports will be the signal moment that the country is ready to shift from crisis response to a “new normal.” The return of sports will be about more than just the big business it entails, but also a symbolic moment for the country. (While leagues have endured lengthier absences at times of labor strife, a return-to-play where the pause resulted from internal matters rather than external forces lacks the same symbolic import.)
Reaching this important moment will require cooperation between the professional league owners and the labor unions representing athletes. Because athletes in each of the major sports leagues are represented by unions, all matters relating to wages, hours and conditions of employment must be the subject of collective bargaining. The length of the season, return-to-work dates for preseason training, and the periods for free agent negotiations and contract signing are all topics included in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for the major sports leagues. CBAs are in force for each of the leagues, with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) concluding voting on a new CBA last month.
So far, the unions and leagues have embraced a cooperative approach to adjustments required by the crisis. The NBA reached quick agreement with its players association to cut paychecks by 25%, with the funds held for a later calculation of reduced salaries based on canceled games (the league can, under the terms of its CBA, reduce pay by “1/92.6th” — around 1% — for a game canceled due to “epidemics,” among other items). The NFLPA’s executive committee and board voted unanimously to accept the NFL’s modification of its off-season rules, which prevents any NFL franchise from bringing players in for off-season work until all 50 states have removed stay-at-home restrictions. Based on the seeming likelihood that the country will re-open gradually, it now seems probable that this agreement will mean that the off-season is delayed even though stay-at-home orders have been lifted in some of the states in which NFL teams operate.
As the lockdown continues, however, there’s a greater chance that modifications required to address the public health crisis will lead to disagreements between the unions and the teams. Scheduling of games is the subject of provisions in each contract — in the case of baseball, detailed provisions, including start times of games and travel issues, cover more than seven pages, and modification might be required in the face of ongoing public health developments. Another obvious topic that could prove controversial are COVID-19 testing requirements for players once games resume. The NBA and its Players Association are investigating technology for “near instant” testing, but how and when such testing is mandatory would need to be subject to agreement.
If the public health crisis continues, each of the leagues will also likely need to consider whether to begin to schedule games without fan involvement. This may involve conducting games in states where stay-at-home orders have been lifted, outside of the ordinary “home territory” of particular teams. For instance, Florida has already exempted sports exhibitions from stay-at-home orders, allowing filming of sports events as long as the public is not allowed to attend (so far, an opportunity that only the “sport” of professional wrestling appears to have embraced).
Resolving these kinds of issues will typically require negotiation between the union and the league because the contracts themselves do not provide a mechanism for responding to all of the issues raised by this public health crisis. Baseball provides for a Safety and Health Advisory Committee (with an equal number of representatives for players and the teams) to deal with “emergency safety and health problems as they arise,” but the committee’s role is purely advisory.
Hopefully, the spirit of cooperation continues, so that communities can again come together to grieve over those lost and recommit to a shared purpose in that only sports provides.
Geoffrey Rapp is the Harold A. Anderson Professor of Law and Values and associate dean for academic affairs at The University of Toledo College of Law, where he teaches sports law and other courses.