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What’s Worse, Bad Games Or No Games?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 21: A member of the Knights Guard dressed as Santa Claus and another wearing an elf hat clean the ice during the Vegas Golden Knights' game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at T-Mobile Arena on December 21, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Lightning defeated the Golden Knights 4-3. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images|

Put the whole season in Santa’s trash bin.

The National Hockey League resumes tonight, kinda sorta, after nearly a week off, 42 consecutive postponements, and six more announced here and there until the end of the year. The league has met COVID and responded with more stringent testing and a quick trigger finger for banging games, fueled by the 20-day gap left by the abandoned Olympics.

College football has been canceling and reassembling bowl games up on the fly because its protocols are essentially, "Oh shit, the other guys ran out of players. Quick, call Central Michigan ASAP!" That, though, is another joke for another improv night. This blog is more about the difference between the NHL's comparatively more prudent approach, and those of the National Football League, which is reducing quarantine periods to the time it takes to run an end-around, or the National Basketball Association, which is revivifying its 2015 rosters as some weird greatest hits compilation: "Hey, look, it's Marcus Camby! What's he doing on the Pacers?" These are two competing worldviews—the lunkheaded "next man up" theory as opposed to the haplessly optimistic "let's save the ones we have."

And don't get me started on the Premier League, where players have been reclassified as firewood for the winter.

Truth is, Omicron almost certainly isn't the last of these nasty little virii to blow through town, and nobody can know the severity of Pi, Rho, Sigma or Tau until they get here. We do know, however, how the NFL and NBA regard its schedule: as law passed down from network to network, in keeping with their much greater reliance on TV money to keep the engines churning in time, even if those on the train are fewer and older. Fewer, as in the Atlanta Hawks putting 13 players in their health-and-safety protocols for tomorrow's game in Chicago against the already megastricken Bulls, and older, as in Greg Monroe knowing almost none of his new Minnesota Timberwolves teammates in a win over a Boston Celtics team that needed 44 minutes from Payton Pritchard.

Since nobody knows anything, nobody is actually wronger here, though Adam Silver looks like he's been obtained in a hostile takeover by his 30 bosses who want the schedule adhered to, like he and it were dipped in glue. Roger Goodell, we already know more than enough about, viz. his capacity for servility.

Gary Bettman, though, is a more interesting case because (a) the NHL's reliance on television is less because its collective take-home is less, and (b) some countries take COVID a bit more seriously than others. The league and its union have agreed to assemble taxi squads to fill out rosters to avoid having to call Marian Hossa or Sean Avery to see if they can pause their retirements for the next couple of weeks. OK, maybe not Sean Avery. Let's say Brenden Morrow instead … as if you'd given Brenden Morrow a single thought since the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, if at all.

However you look at it, the NHL chose to regard its games as fungible while the NBA decided that all accommodations will be made to play the damned games even if the people who used to ask for third-row comped seats are now being asked to play. I mean, can't anyone use Charles Oakley, if only against the Knicks? And the NFL has been all but running pregame tryout camps for everyone from quarterbacks to kickers because, and this may come as a surprise to you, there aren't enough competent ones of either roaming the earth. I mean, the Saints were turned down by Drew Brees and Philip Rivers before settling on Ian Book, presumably because Charlie Batch was unavailable.

The choice then seems to be either bad games or no games at all, and the MVP in all three leagues seems most likely to be Billy Don Covid, the plucky quarterback/shooting guard/second-line winger from Everydamnedplace, Alabama/Alberta. The idea a year ago that sports would help folks get through the days did not factor in Garrett Gilbert, Joe Johnson, or Andrej Sustr. I’m not sure what the lesson is here, but when every new day seems like a direct lift from the dearly departed ESPN Classic, the takeaway seems to be that sports is having the same problem figuring out its role in society. On the one hand, people are getting sick because pandemics are gonna pandemic, and on the other hand, does anyone have an up-to-date number for Jarrett Jack?

This blog has been brought to you by the Remembering A Bunch Of Guys Foundation of Montauk, N.Y.

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