If you are not a regular watcher of the Tennis Channel, it may surprise you to learn that the sport is back. Reruns of prehistoric Grand Slam finals have given way to live coverage of top professionals in exhibition tournaments that none of the players seem to treat as mere exhibitions.
Did I say top professionals? A June team event in Charleston included this year’s Australian Open winner, Sofia Kenin, and 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist Monica Puig. A recent all-Czech tournament in Prague was won by Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion.
But the winner on the men’s side is currently rated the 405th-best player in the world. The Eastern European Championship in Belgrade had entrants who have not cracked the top 1,000.
Still, it’s heartening to learn that high-level tennis can be played under restrictions that protect health and safety. Generally, that has meant testing on arrival and doing without spectators, line judges and ball boys and girls. Players use their own balls when serving and tap racquets at the net instead of hugging at game’s end.
Games are eerily quiet, but the sight of real-time competition soon puts that out of mind.
Like golf, tennis seems adaptable to the demands of life during a pandemic.
But college football? As tennis legend John McEnroe might say, you cannot be serious.
The Ivy League acknowledged what would be obvious if many people had not redefined the term “obvious” to exclude anything related to the coronavirus. It canceled all fall sports, saying, “We simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall.”
The Big Ten, a conference that has redefined the term “ten” — it has 14 members — is taking a halfway approach, akin to trying to cross an abyss in two jumps. Its schools will play only conference games, which the league says will give it “the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”
This explanation would be more credible if it were not paired with the claim that “the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority.”
No, that is not the Big Ten’s No. 1 priority. It is somewhere down the list, behind making money, satisfying fans and alumni, making money, upholding tradition and, let’s not forget, making money. If health were the top priority, the conference would simply abandon football this year.
You can play the game without fans but not without an enormous amount of close, extended physical interaction among dozens of players — not to mention the large numbers of coaches and support personnel in every major program. The people on the sidelines can wear masks and strive for social distance, at least intermittently, but the guys in pads? The only time they’ll be at risk is when they’re breathing.
It’s not just games we’re talking about. Football players spend a lot of time at practice, where they are known to come into periodic contact with each other during drills and scrimmages. Any COVID-19 germ that finds its way into a locker room will not lack for promising avenues.
Canceling the season would acknowledge the dismal realities of life in a pandemic. It would concede that the only way to safeguard the well-being of all the people involved in football programs is to postpone play until we know more about the virus and how to stop its transmission.
That approach would have other advantages. It would allow Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh to go an entire year without losing to Ohio State, something he has not experienced in his five seasons.
It would spare the Hoosier State the pain of watching the Indiana University fail to win the conference title, which it has captured just twice since 1899. It would spare people in the heartland the irritating reminder that this iconic Midwestern association includes the state university of … New Jersey.
In addressing the pandemic, the conference has taken a small step. But this is the Big Ten. It needs to go big and go home.