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Baseball will be a snooze without fans, by George Willis, TheNewYorkExtra/TheNYExtra.com

UFC and boxing have restarted their competitive schedules.  So has golf.  The NBA and major league baseball are heading back for shortened seasons and soon will be followed by the NFL.  At least that’s the plan.

The return of sports on television has been welcomed in the midst of this continuing pandemic and it’s admirable athletes are willing to compete in the midst of COVID-19.  But there remains no timetable for the return of fans to be in attendance, and it just hasn’t been the same without them.

07/01/12 Chicago White Sox vs New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium Old Timers Day: A shot outfield the field before Old Timer’s Day. Neil Miller The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2020

Performing amid empty arenas, golf courses and stadiums doesn’t offer the same atmosphere, passion, pageantry and emotion that fans bring to an event, and that’s not going to change until it’s safe to put 10 to 20-thousand people together to cheer what’s going on.

08/29/16 miami marlins vs ny mets at citifield queens ny New York Mets win 2-1 on a walk off homer by New York Mets center fielder Yoenis Cespedes #52 in the 10th inning Neil Miller The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2020
07/01/12 Chicago White Sox vs New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium -Old Timers Day: yanks win 4-2 New York Yankees fans celebrate as a 2 run homer by New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano #24 goes into the right field stands Neil Miller The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2020

Let’s hope with all the reflection that’s taking place these days owners, promoters, athletes and even the media will treat fans with a little more respect when life gets back to normal.

Fans deserve better.  They’ve been taken for granted by ownership trying to find ways to siphon every last dime out of their wallet instead of making attending games a more affordable and memorable experience.  The empty seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are constant reminders of the greed that comes with escalating ticket prices and salaries. Let’s hope the impact of COVID-19 can serve as a reminder that sports aren’t the same without people in the arena reacting to those trying to entertain.

While the NBA heads to Orlando, baseball is preparing to restart a season that never got started and play a 60-game schedule in front of nobody.  And while that sounds like a good thing, baseball is already slow enough and will become dreadfully boring without fans to serve as entertainment through three hours of little action. Once the novelty wears off, watching baseball without fans might be the worst thing to happen to the sport.

The only ones not complaining might be the Astros, who would have been subjected to endless heckling after being exposed as cheaters during the offseason.  Perhaps the umpires, who tend to get an earful from the stands won’t mind either, and the relief pitcher who gets bombed without recording an out will enjoy a quieter walk to the dugout.  The high-priced free agent slugger going through a slump won’t have to worry about getting razzed, and the manager won’t get booed for a questionable double switch.

06/17/07 New York Mets Vs. New York Yankees @ Yankee Stadium Yankees win 8-2 #40 wang leaves the game in the 9th inning to the cheers of the fans at the stadium Neil Miller The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2020

But who’s going to react when someone hits a walk-off home run or acknowledge a starter who just threw seven shut-out innings or cheer the outfielder who makes a great catch while crashing into a wall or a runner who stretches a double into a triple?  Who’s going to stand in unison during a big at-bat or sing during the seventh-inning stretch? Will they even need a seventh-inning stretch?

Fighters beat up each other and golfers are trying to get ball in a hole in the least amount of strokes.  Simple. Baseball is game of subtleties that mean a lot. Signs are delivered from the manager to the catcher to the pitcher to the shortstop and to the outfielder.  The opposition sends signals from the bench to the hitter and to the runner. Tendencies and averages are constantly analyzed. Lefty or righty?  Keep the starter or go to the bullpen?  What about a pinch-hitter?   What’s a baseball game without fans to react to all this?

Fans have put up with a lot crap in recent years.  Late starts, PSLs, players demanding trades over contract disputes, increased ticket prices, spending a fortune on bottled water, players who grumble when asked for an autograph, parking congestion, and being forced, especially in New York, to watch mostly lousy teams. They put up with general managers who no longer feel the need to communicate with them on a regular basis.  And they can get booted from an arena for saying the wrong thing to an owner.

05/31/13 tulsa shock vs ny liberty at prudential center newark nj liberty lead 37-29 at the half james dolan at the game tonite Neil Miller The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2020

Despite all that, fans kept showing up so announcers can talk about “the electricity in the building” and athletes can call themselves entertainers.  Basketball and baseball might be coming back, but the fans aren’t.  Maybe they’ll be treated better when they do.

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PGA Tour Hoping COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t get worse, by George Willis, TheNewYorkExtra/theNYExtra.com

Welcome to the new normal on the PGA Tour.  Hopefully.

Five players withdrew from the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., on Wednesday amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19.   Cameron Champ was the only player to test positive, but caddies Ricky Elliott and Ken Convoy also tested positive.  Elliott carries the bag for Brooks Koepka, who withdrew, while Convoy is the caddie for Graeme McDowell, who also withdrew, as per the health and safety protocols established by the tour.

Chase Koepka, the brother of Brooks Koepka, had qualified for the tournament at TPC River Highlands, but also withdrew out of an abundance of caution.  Webb Simpson, the winner of last week’s RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, also withdrew out of an abundance of caution.

credit twitter

The five withdrawals and three positive tests come after golfer Nick Watney tested positive for COVID-19 before the second round at Hilton Head last week.  While five withdrawals in a single day seems like a big number, it’s manageable for the PGA Tour.

“We knew it would be impossible to eliminate all risk as evidenced by the three positive tests this week,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a virtual interview from Cromwell, adding, “We all need to learn to live with this virus, both as individuals, as family members and certainly within our business.”

There was no thought of canceling the tournament, which is the right move.  The 2020 Travelers Championship is part of the four tourney restart of the PGA Tour where fans aren’t allowed and putting on a professional golf tournament in the midst of a pandemic is unprecedented.  There were bound to be positive tests and the PGA Tour can only hope the situation doesn’t get much worse.

Monahan said the Tour has administered 2,757 in market tournament tests, including the Korn Ferry Tour, with seven positive tests.  Any positive test is a concern, but it’s also part of the learning process of how to contest professional sports in this uncertain climate.

“I’m concerned,” Monahan said, “but I’m also confident in the program and protocols we’ve put in place and our ability to be able to sustain the PGA Tour and give our players opportunities on both of these tours over the course of the year, so long as we continue to be as diligent as we intend to be.”

A Travelers purse of $7.4 million will be at stake when the first round begins Thursday.  Players are tested every other day, which means there could be more positive tests coming during the week.  The hope is that it doesn’t get to the point where the PGA Tour considers shutting down the season again.

“The thing that’s most important is just everybody needs to do their part,” said Justin Thomas, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour.  “It’s a big-picture thing, and you need to do not only what’s best for you but most importantly what’s best for the Tour because one mistake that someone makes could end up ruining other guys or potentially suspend the Tour again.”

Monahan hopes it won’t get to that point.  “We’re confident with the plan we have and we are very hopeful that we are not going to be in that position,” he said.

Travelers doing ‘everything’ to avoid COVID-19 spread on PGA Tour

barclays golf/tuesdays pratice round pro am tournament of barclays classic at westchester country club/ phil mickelson hot from the 8th hole today Neil Miller/The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2020

All eyes will be on the 2020 Travelers Championship this week in Cromwell, Conn., and it won’t just be about the golf.  After Nick Watney became the first player to test positive for COVID-19 at the RBC Heritage last week at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, the PGA Tour is holding its collective breath waiting to see if it’s an isolated case or the start of something more serious.

The world best golfers began arriving at TPC River Highlands on Monday for the annual event that is the first on the PGA Tour to be played on schedule since the pandemic began.  No fans will be in attendance and the list of volunteers, which normally numbers 4,000 has been whittled to about 300.  Everyone on the grounds will be tested during the week by either the PGA Tour or a separate testing program being implemented by tournament organizers.

“All players, caddies and tour officials will be tested in the Tour program,” tournament director Nathan Grube told TheNYExtra.com “But given the environment and what’s happening in New England we talked to Travelers and made an agreement that we are going to test everybody on property.  We have a different program going the same time the Tour has their program going.  We’ve been working with all of the volunteers, vendors, television teams, police security, firemen, and manufacture reps, anybody on property.”

Testing everyone at the event has been a “logistical challenge,” trying to coordinate schedules and procedures.  “We just want to make sure that after the tournament is over when we look back, we can say, we did everything we possibly could to be as safe as possible,” Grube said.

The Travelers Championship with a purse of $7,400,000 is regarded as one of the most fan-friendly tournaments on the PGA Tour and a popular stop for touring players, normally coming off a rugged U.S. Open.   While COVID-19 caused the cancellation or postponement of several tournaments including this year’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y, the Travelers was tabbed as one of the first four events once the Tour returned to action.

The Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial came off without incident two weeks ago, but Watney, 39, tested positive before Friday’s second round at Hilton Head after being negative from an initial test taken on Tuesday.

Despite being symptomatic on Friday, Watney, a five-time PGA Tour, was allowed to remain at the golf course and continue his preparation while awaiting test results.  The 11 people he came into contact with during the week were all tested Friday and were negative.  Watney is now in self-isolation in South Carolina for at least 10 days.  

A positive test was scary, but not unexpected, and Grube said information gathered at Colonial and Harbour Town will be invaluable this week.

“All the tournament directors are having weekly calls and sometimes daily calls,” Grube said.  “People were sending us pictures every day.  ‘This is what we did at player registration. This is what we did at caddie registration.  This is how we sent out water to the groups.’  It was such a good flow of information.”

Being part of the restart has helped the Travelers attract a strong field. The top five players in the world ranking are competing:  Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson.   Bubba Watson will be looking for his fourth win in Cromwell, while two-time champion Phil Mickelson and 2017 champion Jordan Spieth are also in the field along with 15 of the top 20 players in the world rankings.

“We’re happy we’re part of bringing sport back and part of bringing golf back,” Grube said.  “Our fans are part of what makes this place so special and so unique.  They’ll definitely be missed.  But I think they understand.”

With an estimated 200,000 in attendance over the course of the week, the 2019 tournament raised an estimated $2.1 million for the various charities the tournament supports.  With no Pro-Am and no corporate tents to generate added income payouts to charitable funds figured to be scarce this year.  But the majority of the sponsors have agreed to make their fees donations instead of rolling it over into next year.  “We’re going to be able to give a significant number to charities,” Grube said.  “It’s been a very, very different year with how much is going on.”

Sports Media Must Take A Serious Look In the Mirror, by George Willis, The New York Extra/The NYExtra.com

We have spent weeks watching and listening to our nation and the world march in protest against what happened to George Floyd and the social injustices that have plagued our communities and specifically African-Americans.

Politicians, activists, athletes, educators, protesters, and counter protesters have been scrutinized, terrorized and jailed for their efforts and opinions on what is needed to bring about change.

The media with its cameras, microphones and on-air commentators have followed the different narratives and ramifications. Even our sports pages–normally shielded from political and social unrest–have been forced to join the discussion as they chronicle the actions and tweets from athletes, coaches and professional sports organizations, concerning #BlackLivesMatter.

The Red Sox, the Yankees, the Giants, the Knicks, Drew Brees, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James have had their actions and words dissected for their level of sincerity and plausible action.   Now it’s time for those asking the questions to be scrutinized, too.

Our sports departments at newspapers and major sports on-line websites around the country need to take this opportunity to check themselves and make a change.  Editors and those in charge of hiring need to take a timeout and ask themselves whether they’re going to be part of the problem or part of the solution.  Right now, the lack of diversity–real diversity—in sports journalism is appalling and getting worse.

I say this after completing a 23-year run as a general sports columnist at the New York Post. I have been a sports writer for 37 years since earning a diploma at New Mexico State University.   I have been the first black sports writer and the first black beat reporter at a few different stops along the way and had hoped our sports world would be covered by a more diverse media by now.  By that I mean more women and more people of color and varied backgrounds.

Instead, today’s sports staffs on daily print and on-line are largely all white males, charged with dictating the news and coverage of athletes of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.

This is not about on-air television talent where the heavy presence of retired African-American athletes turned broadcasters offers a smokescreen of racial balance.  True diversity goes beyond those you see on pregame shows.  I’m talking about producers, columnists, beat writers and insiders, those that create the stories that are talked about on television and talk radio.

I can add to the chorus about how what happened to Floyd sickened me.  I can speak to being barred from playing in a coaches golf outing at a country club in Tennessee because I was black and about how a group of policemen swarmed me and my Cuban-American friend in the car I was driving in New Jersey and ordered us out because we “matched the description” of someone who committed an armed robbery.

I also grew up knowing good cops and detectives, who were admired and respected for the way they protected and served. I also think restoring Police Athletic Leagues around the country is one step in the right direction.

Having more diversity in sports journalism is important, too.  The fallacy of being impartial observers has allowed the sports media to bury its collective head to anything not involving a ball.  That can’t happen anymore.  Opinions matter, websites matter, those who write words and shape stories matter.

According to a 2016 ASNE Diversity Survey, the percentage of minorities in the overall workforce at daily print and on-line organizations was 17 percent, 5.3 percent of which were listed as black.  It’s only gotten worse with fewer newspapers and fewer jobs.

Diversity in those who cover sports at its basic levels matters now more than ever because athletes male and female are no longer going to shut up and play.   They’re going to be black, brown, and gay and utilize various platforms to be outspoken about what they see and feel.  They’ve gone beyond talking about the next game and trusting the process.  They won’t be kept in their place.  Those who cover them will need to understand them, not just quote them.

The plea here is for publishers, sports editors, managing editors and those that hire and fire to do better; to look harder for diverse talent; and to care about what your staff looks like.  Editors also need to challenge their writers to think beyond the final score and learn who they’re actually writing about.  If not, then you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution.

George Willis spent 23 years as a sports columnist at the New York Post after working previously at the New York Times, Newsday and The Memphis Commercial Appeal. He is the author of the “The Bite Fight: Tyson, Holyfield and the Night That Changed Boxing Forever,” and co-author of the NY Times Best Seller “Unnecessary Roughness: Inside the Trial and Final Days of Aaron Hernandez.”