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Column: What to expect from the sports world in 2021

As if 2020 wasn’t weird enough. 

2020 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

One might expect that, after all that’s happened in 2020, there’s little that would shock us when it comes to scheduling for 2021 sports. However, what feels shocking this week is that, with the Los Angeles Lakers taking home an NBA title last night, the 2019-20 NBA season is finally over (not finally because I’m happy about it, but because the Lakers’ first game of the season was Oct. 22, 2019 - 355 days ago). Which, of course, begs the question of when we’ll have NBA basketball back for the 2020-21 season, especially since the league as a whole was so, so successful in executing despite COVID-19.

Those questions are naturally extending into the college ranks, because one area that was easy to forget with the drama surrounding the onset of the college football season is that conferences, often, were making decisions about other fall, winter and spring sports in tandem.

We seem, for instance, to have completely missed the fact Ohio State basketball is scheduled to tip off in November with season-opening tournaments, with the regular season starting the first week of December. Unlike football, in which individual conferences largely managed their return to play situations, NCAA Division I men’s basketball’s decision came from none other than the NCAA Division I Council.

Additionally, last week, the Big Ten announced that the 2020-21 men’s hockey season could commence as early as Nov. 13, with a tentative 24-game conference schedule and tournament scheduled tentatively for March.

That’s a lot of tentatives. While I sincerely hope and want to believe that these sports seasons will happen - for the players, schools and fans - safety comes first, and if these activities can’t happen safely, they simply won’t happen at all.

It felt like there was once a time when sports management felt easy - like I could just go to Ohio State’s athletic website and get a feel for what was happening. Now (and for most of the last seven months), things are just confusing. The NCAA made the choice back in March to cancel the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments after individual conferences opted to table their conference tournaments. All other spring sports championships followed. That made sense. Then individual conferences chose to postpone or play football, and we began to see the fissures that cracked further with inconsistent governance along with a lack of planning and accountability.

The good news is that we’ll have a lot of lessons learned by the time most sports enter their 2020-21 campaigns, and those lessons are ones we’ll have to take to heart because, let’s face it, we’re going to be dealing with the implications of this pandemic for a long while more.

The NFL, for example, is now managing the challenge of not building in extra bye weeks for when players and teams inevitably began seeing positive COVID-19 tests. The Tennessee Titans and seven other teams will now have to work through modified schedules, while the New England Patriots will need to manage without quarterback Cam Newton for a defined quarantine period.

The NBA, meanwhile, just wrapped up an exemplary effort which once again showed why Adam Silver and the NBA at large are a league to emulate. It is saying something when every storyline remains about the sport, its players and the playoffs rather than the virus.

The NHL, meanwhile, also completed its season in multiple bubbles with minimal COVID-19-related issues (though there were some challenges in bringing some of the commentators into the 21st century).

Major League Baseball, similarly, is closing out its season, even after experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks at the outset. The league managed to successfully test, identify and quarantine teams and players - without a bubble - for a truncated but (because, baseball) still lengthy season.

However, the reality is that, while football and baseball are in their natural rhythms (i.e. baseball should be in the playoffs in the fall and football should be early in the season now), hockey and basketball are off by months. The NBA Draft is even scheduled to be held next month - in November! What a world.

Adam Silver, who, again, has been a model of a commissioner throughout this process, was once again hyper-transparent when speaking with Rachel Nichols last week regarding the start of the 2020-21 season, stating it could begin as early as Christmas, but more likely in January. In that case, we’ll have an odd “NBA 2021” season in our record books, I suppose.

The bottom line that we’ve learned this season is three-fold, and it’s easy to see how its success (or lack thereof) has played out across the different sports leagues.

First, transparency is king - from league leadership, coaches, staff and players. Transparent reporting in the NFL meant that the Minnesota Vikings, after playing the Titans and several Titans subsequently testing positive for COVID-19, were able to isolate, test and ultimately get back to play quickly.

Second, league leadership must have a clear plan for moving forward. One of the reasons the NBA was so successful while the Big Ten received so much flack was that the NBA was extremely clear in what the steps were going to be: exhibition games, eight regular season games, playoffs; no fans from the start; no players leaving the bubble. There were clear “if, then” scenarios - something which is currently plaguing the NFL as it scrambles with protocols with more teams reporting positive COVID-19 tests.

Finally, all participants and stakeholders in the league must be willing to abide by the rules. As alluded to previously, MLB has managed to be generally successful sans a bubble because its players abided to the social distancing guidelines set forth by the league.

Again, not to heap too, too much praise on the NBA, but the league and its star players have also built a culture in which players believe in the rules - take the snitch hotline as an example. Can you even imagine LeBron James violating bubble protocol with a championship on the line?

We’re not going to get a consistent response across sports, because the nature of games is different (contact vs. non-contact sports), size of teams varies (imagine trying to put football in a bubble) and seasonality limits some leagues and not others (hopefully we’ll have a vaccine by next football season, but there’s little promise of that for basketball).

However, by holding to transparency and a clear plan, and by having all parties comply with the rules set forth by the league, we will be able to continue having sports - even if the rest of the world still feels like it’s not back to normal.