One: The Critical Number That Any Sports League Wanting to Return to Play After COVID-19 Has to Prepare For
For all the talk about returning to normal in the sports world, the critical question is what happens when a coronavirus case happens in that sport?
There a number of plans being offered and lots of chatter about the return of professional and collegiate sports. Every sports league, both in the U.S. and indeed around the world, is grappling with how and when to resume play in the face of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and under what conditions. However, there’s one number that any league wanting to resume operations had to be able to deal with. And as a management consultant/analyst/professor, I am simply not seeing this number being talked about nearly enough. That number is one.
The Groupthink Trap
Whether in a plush conference room at a fancy headquarters or today, in a Zoom meeting from you home, there is no more valuable thing that anyone sitting in a meeting can do than to take a very brave, yet simple step. Top executives of any organization (not just a certain President) dearly love to hear how brilliant their plans are. They love to reach the end of their PowerPoint deck and hear accolades and maybe even actual applause!
And yet we know from studying organizations of all types, year after year and decade after decade, the story is always the same. If a meeting ends with everyone simply commenting about how wonderful and how brilliant the plan that was just presented was, that’s the absolute worst thing that can happen! Almost instinctively, we know that it’s sooooooooo much easier to just “go with the flow” and to not be the one to raise a question. If you have not left a meeting — in the real world or the virtual one — without saying to yourself or even to colleagues something to the effect of “I really should have said…” or “I really wish I had asked…,” well then you are likely a rarity.
And yet that is what is known as the phenomenon of “groupthink,” which can be defined as:
Groupthink occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent. This problematic or premature consensus may be fueled by a particular agenda or simply because group members value harmony and coherence above rational thinking. In a groupthink situation, group members refrain from expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus. In the interest of making a decision that furthers their group cause, members may ignore any ethical or moral consequences.
The concept known as groupthink is a very powerful one, proven in famous cases from the decisions to launch both New Coke and the Space Shuttle Challenger. It’s even become a term that is so widely known that “The Simpsons” have even taken on how groupthink makes corporate decision making less than optimal.
Research has consistently shown that he best way to rescue your organization, your manager, your colleagues and even yourself from falling into the groupthink trap is to take the brave step of asking simple questions that begin with prepositions such as:
- “What if….?”
- “Have you thought about….?
- “What happens if x occurs….?
What seems to be happening now is that in the heat of the moments, sports decision makers, facing conflicting demands from various constituencies, sensing time pressure from their respective traditional seasonal calendars, and oh yes, dealing with a highly contagious virus that causes a potentially fatal disease, don’t have enough people around them willing to ask that one question about, yes, the number 1.
And so we seem to be seeing, in real-time, classic cases of groupthink taking place across the world of sports today, as those in charge of sports governing bodies of all types, sizes, and locales not encouraging enough real dialogue about the problems at hand with trying to return to play in the midst of a pandemic. And all it would take to perhaps break the groupthink cycle is that one person who might ask that one critical question…
Returning to Play in the Middle of a Pandemic
Whether you are talking about American football or the rest of the world’s football. Whether you are talking about team sports like basketball, hockey, and baseball or individual sports like golf, tennis, and even bowling (though we can debate if that’s a sport another day…), every sports league is in the process of developing — and yes, in some cases implementing — plans to resume play. This is true on the collegiate level here in the United States as well, even reaching down to the ranks of high school and even youth sports.
Every league, every organizing body, every sports team, every institution involved knows that with each and every day that passes, not only are huge amounts of money being lost by these entities, but tens of thousands of jobs that directly depend on sports leagues’ operations and many, many more jobs in food service, transportation, travel and more — and even the very survival of these firms-that derive income from supporting the operations of leagues, teams and stadiums in the “sports economy” are at risk. And then there’s the media, and with sports being, other than news, the only live programming that has proven successful in driving eyeballs to screens in our increasingly on-demand world of entertainment, the absence of sports means that sports networks are being starved of the content that they need to survive. And no content with no eyeballs watching it means no ads from companies advertising their products and services brings into question the viability of sports media itself. Sports is the driver of the sports economy, and without it, that economy — an important part of the overall economy today — collapses.
And so in this environment, all sports entities are trying to find a way to return to play safely — even if this means shortened seasons, “fanless” events, and having everyone associated with a team — and maybe even an entire league — be quarantined together for perhaps the duration of their sports seasons. To date, we have seen very limited moves toward actually resuming live sports. In the United States, only pro golf (the PGA Tour) and auto racing (NASCAR) have announced actual return to competition dates in the coming two months. And while various American sports leagues have explored playing in a “bubble environment” in former tourist-dependent destinations like Las Vegas or Orlando or even in remote outposts in places like rural South Dakota or Iowa, no league has as of yet made a firm commitment to do so. However, in spite of all the uncertainty of the present public health situation, the National Football League is still planning to release a schedule for a full season to begin on-time in early September this week…
Certainly, no sports league has made the commitment — or developed as “sexy” a return plan as the UFC and Dana White in constructing “Fight Island” for the UFC, but there is speculation that ultimately, playing in a bubble environment may be the only way for sports leagues to do so in the coming months — and perhaps even longer depending on how fast developments are made in testing for, treating, and ultimately, developing a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Analysis: The One Question That Is Not Being Asked
As a management “guy,” I can assure you of one thing: For all the talk about leagues, sports organizations, individual teams, and even colleges and universities trying to resume sports, there is one question that is not being asked nearly enough in the meetings being held to determine the mechanics of resuming sports, and that is a simple one. In every meeting on this subject, someone needs to cut through the groupthink and ask: “What happens when we find out that we have one coronavirus case?”
There can be no doubt that there is intense pressure on all sports entities to get, if not back to normal, at least to that “new normal” that the after pandemic sports environment will be. After all, in a study for ESPN, Patrick Rishe, who directs the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, totaled the potential economic losses to the sports economy in the U.S. at $12 billion, along with 3 millions jobs and thousands of businesses that depend on sports for their survival.
However, in all of the planning that leagues, sports organizations, conferences, and teams will be doing going forward, I would urge all of those in charge to encourage the type of critical thinking that needs to be employed in managing a crisis such as this. And certainly, while there are countless other questions that can and should be asked about the ethics of all of this (e.g. Should sports teams/leagues get preference for testing over members of the general public? Should individuals — particularly when they are student athletes and not professionals being paid for their labor, be made to play in the current conditions?), the fundamental question is how should a league/team respond to the diagnosis of a coronavirus positive player, coach, staff member.
For the teams themselves, the issues associated with a positive COVID-19 test may be far easier to deal with than the issues associated with such a single diagnosis by the leagues and governing organizations involved. For instance, for a team, having a player or even just a member of their support personnel test positive would mean isolating that person. However, would that be enough? Would the entire team — and everyone associated with it — have to be quarantined and for how long? And what happens to the games involved to be played during that time? Can the contests be made up? Should the team involved be made to “forfeit” due to a diagnosis — and might that outcome make teams be tempted to “hide” such a diagnosis, even knowing the possible health consequences (not to mention the PR disaster that might be!).
There are other questions that need to be considered in regards to the “one diagnosis” scenario. For teams and leagues both, there will be questions of legal liability — questions that may be severe enough to scuttle any notion of returning to play. Also, if the public sours on the notion of sports being played in the face of the very real larger problems that are occurring across society, might there be a public backlash against sports resuming — and possibly even governmental action. Furthermore, as the federal government’s approach has largely been designed to put states and even cities at the forefront of “regulating the pandemic,” what will happen when a diagnosis might occur and there are differing guidelines in place between political jurisdictions involved as to how such an occurrence might be handled?
In the end, as much of a sports fan as I am, and one who as a member of the higher education system that values — and yes, depends on — college sports and the revenue it generates in the football and basketball area in particular, I simply do not think that the “What do we do when…?” question is being asked nearly enough in the countless meetings that are occurring that will determine at least the near-term future — if not longer — of American sports. As much as I personally would want sports to resume, I just think that from a practical perspective, the “one” question is the key one that will likely prevent sports from returning in any meaningful way — well, outside of “Fight Island” — anytime soon.
David C. Wyld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University outside New Orleans. He is a noted business consultant and speaker/writer on contemporary management issues.