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Saturday Sports: In Virus Times, No Games To Unify The Nation


And as long as the world keeps spinning, we can cue up the music of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme, and say, it's time for sports.


SIMON: But is there a role for sports to play in a pandemic? And in the NFL, of course, a big trade this week. Howard Bryant trade - no, new signing by Tom Brady. Howard Bryant of ESPN, where they've had to rerun video from the 1973 Nova Scotia curling championships, joins us. Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: Fine. Thanks, my friend. We're finishing this first full week with no major sports in America. If you think back to another period of national emergency, 9/11 in particular, sports were kind of a national unifier. The World Series in New York was a sign that New York was back. But now 50,000 fans in a stadium is exactly the opposite of what should be done now, isn't it?

BRYANT: Yeah, and that's actually the big issue historically when you think about sports is, you know, the role of sports during the times of national crisis. If you think about World War II, one of the reasons why sports continued was because President Roosevelt wanted the country to feel normal. This return to normalcy, this idea of diversion and of hope and of a routine, that there was a place for sports. And you think about that, whether you're talking about war, whether you're talking about the Gulf War, you're talking about 9/11 - that sports has always had a lane during these times.

This is very, very different. This is one of these times where sports can't be the bomb. It cannot be the bomb for this type of crisis because it's exactly the problem. What does the sports industry do when its very nature contributes to the problem?

I remember the one part of this that I did think was very interesting was even as sports became part of the problem because you can't have large gatherings anymore, it was also the signal that this was important. Let's not forget that when the tennis tournament down at Indian Wells out in California - when they canceled, I received, Scott, many, many, many text messages and phone calls from people within the sports industry, from players and executives, who believed it was an overreaction. And then a few days later, the National Basketball Association shut down. And on the one hand, that was the sign to America that this was important - when sports wasn't going to be played. And at the same time, I also had medical professionals tell - say things to me like, so it took Tom Hanks and the NBA shutting down for this to be important.

But at least the sports world did the right thing because that was a signal. It would've been incredibly irresponsible, and it would've sent the complete wrong message and undermined medical professionals everywhere had sports continued to play or try to play during this time.

SIMON: What about the idea some people have floated? I think maybe even Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, proposed maybe a charity game where leagues could play games without fans.

BRYANT: I think there's - I think there's an importance to having a presence, to being present to remind people that there is a lot of humanity out there still. At the same time, I do feel like there is something to be said to not be reckless and to - and to be very clear that this is not normal - that this is not a normal time.

And I think that when I spoke to some sports executives, one of the things that I had questioned or had created this dynamic was to suggest on the one hand, you do want to contribute, but on the other hand, you don't want to appear that you are simply trying to maintain your profits, that you're trying to just keep your business alive. And so it's a very delicate time for the sports industry. But there's no question that there is a role for it. And part of that role is leading by being patient.

SIMON: We got half a minute for a real sports question. Tom Brady signing with Tampa Bay - what do you think?

BRYANT: Well, I think being in New England, this is certainly a time of mourning. And I think when the games begin, it'll get really exciting. But for now, even Tom Brady sort of has to take a back seat to this.

SIMON: Yeah. All right. Well put. ESPN's Howard Bryant. Thanks so much, my friend.

BRYANT: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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