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Baseball’s back: MLB sets 60-game sked, opens July 23 or 24

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball issued a 60-game schedule Tuesday night that will start July 23 or 24 in empty ballparks as the sport tries to push ahead amid the coronavirus pandemic following months of acrimony.

A dramatically altered season with games full of new rules was the final result of failed financial negotiations. But for fans eager to see any baseball this year, at least now they can look forward to opening day.

The announcement by MLB came while more players continue to test positive for the virus — at least seven on the Philadelphia Phillies alone and Colorado star Charlie Blackmon. And a stark realization remained, that if health situations deteriorate, all games could still be wiped out.

“What happens when we all get it?” Milwaukee pitcher Brett Anderson tweeted Monday.

One day after the players’ association rejected an economic agreement and left open the possibility of a grievance seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, the bickering sides agreed on an operations manual. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred then unilaterally imposed the schedule, his right under a March agreement with the union.

In a twist, the sides expanded the designated hitter to games between National League teams for the first time and instituted the radical innovation of starting extra innings with a runner on second base.

Playoff teams remain at 10 for now — there is still talk of a possible expansion. The rejected deal had called for 16 teams.

Players will start reporting for the resumption of training on July 1. It remains to be seen which players will report back to work — high-risk individuals are allowed to opt out and still receive salary and service time, but others who sit out get neither money nor the service credit needed for eligibility for free agency and salary arbitration.

Each team will play 10 games against each of its four division rivals and 20 total games against the five clubs in the corresponding regional division in the other league, according to details obtained by The Associated Press.

This will be MLB’s shortest season since 1878, a schedule of such brevity that some fans may question the legitimacy of stats and records.

No decision has been made on whether fans can start attending games at some point.

“I think we need to get on the ground running and get comfortable that we can play games in empty stadiums safely before we move forward fans,” Manfred said in an interview with the AP. “My patience in that regard is in part based on the fact that there are so many different situations. Some places there looks like there’s no prospect. Other places they’re more aggressive. I think we need to be patient and even where we have the option, we need to make sure that we know exactly what we’re doing before we jump into it.”

No matter what, the season will be among the most unusual ever for a sport that takes pride in the race for titles being a marathon and not a sprint: Washington started 19-31 and 27-33 last year but finished 93-69 to earn a wild card and won a seven-game World Series for its first title.

“There’s a lot more pressure because in a 60-game schedule, I think that you have 25% more teams that can compete, that had no idea they were going to compete for 162 games,” said Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, now a broadcaster.

The trade deadline will be Aug. 31 and the deadline to be in an organization for postseason eligibility is Sept. 15. Teams can resume making trades at noon EDT on Friday, when rosters will no longer be frozen.

Active rosters will be 30 players during the first two weeks of the season, 28 during the second two weeks and 26 after that. They will not expand to 28 on Sept. 1, as originally intended this year.

With no minor leagues, teams will be allowed to retain 60 players each, including a taxi squad of up to three players, one of which must be a catcher. Taxi squad players get paid at minor league salary rates but receive a $108.50 daily allowance.

MLB is keeping the planned innovation that pitchers must face three batters or finish a half inning — players refused to agree a year ago but also waived their right to block.

The injured list minimum for pitchers will remain 10 days rather than revert to 15, as initially intended. The 60-day injured list will be a 45-day list this year and there will be a new COVID-19 injured list for players who test positive, are exposed to the virus or exhibit symptoms.

Public opinion shredded both sides as they locked in a ferocious financial battle during a pandemic that has led to more than 120,000 deaths and 2.3 million infections in the U.S. and led to a 14.7% unemployment rate, the highest since the Great Depression.

MLB hoped to be the first U.S. major sports league to return, at first with an 82-game schedule starting around the Fourth of July, but sniping broke out between management and players who distrust teams’ claims of economic losses following years of franchise appreciation. MLB claimed that without gate-related revenue it would lose $640,000 for each additional regular-season game, a figure the union disputed.

MLB became exasperated with the union’s leadership team, headed by former All-Star first baseman Tony Clark and Bruce Meyer, a litigator hired in August 2018. Manfred and Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem were infuriated when Clark said he considered the result of a one-on-one meeting with Manfred last week a proposal rather than what MLB termed a framework for a deal.

Rather than play 162 games over 186 days, the season will be 60 games over 66 or 67 days, depending on whether there is a nationally televised Thursday night opener. It is scheduled to end Sept. 27, which leaves little margin to make up September rainouts. MLB insisted it needed to complete the World Series in October, avoiding any second wave of the virus.

Players are being given staggered reporting times over several days for intake screening. The time will be used for coronavirus testing ahead of the resumption of workouts, which were stopped March 12 due to the pandemic.

Because of an uptick in infections in Florida and Arizona, 29 teams currently are leaning toward training in their regular-season ballparks. Toronto was hoping to gain government permission to work out at Rogers Centre.

Under terms of the deal the sides reached on March 26, which was to have been opening day, players would receive prorated portions of their salaries if the 60-game schedule is not cut short by the virus. Salaries originally totaled $4 billion, and the prorated portion of about 37% reduces pay to $1.48 billion.

Salaries were to have ranged from $563,500 at the minimum to $36 million for Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole at the top, but the spread would now be from $208,704 to $13,333,333.

MLB had sought last month in its initial economic plan to reduce pay to about $1 billion, and players vowed not to give up full prorated pay and proposed a 114-game schedule that amounted to $2.8 billion.

The relationship deteriorated back to the level of the acrimonious labor disputes that led to eight work stoppages from 1972-95, and the union has threatened a grievance claiming MLB didn’t fulfill the provision in the March deal requiring the longest season economically feasible, conditioned by several other provisions. MLB would claim the union bargained in bad faith, and the case would be argued before arbitrator Mark Irvings.

That would be a prelude to the expiration of the current labor contract on Dec. 1, 2021, which likely will be followed by a lockout.

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The ESPYS focus on honors, pandemic and racial justice

No red carpet, no nattily dressed athletes, no house band or monologue poking fun at the past year’s top athletes and moments.

This was a different version of The ESPYS.

The focus of Sunday night’s show on ESPN was hope and inspiration in the time of coronavirus.

NFL quarterback Russell Wilson, along with soccer star Megan Rapinoe and WNBA star Sue Bird, hosted the pre-produced show remotely from their respective homes in Seattle. Each wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts to open the show, and touched on the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were killed by police, as well as the life of Ahmaud Arbery. Three men, including a former police officer, are charged in Arbery’s death.

Rapinoe and Bird urged their fellow white athletes to “don’t just listen. Help.”

“This is the time we’ve got to have their backs,” Rapinoe said of Black athletes. Later in the show, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Olympic gold-medal skier Lindsey Vonn were among those calling on white athletes to listen, learn and act.

Wilson, who is Black, added, “Our country’s work is not anywhere close to being done.”

Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for sparking a national conversation about mental health. Two years ago, he wrote an online essay detailing his struggles with mental health, including having a panic attack during a game. As a result, other athletes and fans began sharing details of their own mental health challenges and sharing resources on how to get help.

Love created the Kevin Love Fund and has continued speaking out. During the COVID-19 crisis, he’s shared tips on how to cope with the stress and isolation caused by the pandemic.

At home, Love opened a box with the trophy inside, proclaiming, “It’s nice and shiny.”

“In light of all that’s going on in our country today, I accept this award as both an honor and a challenge,” he said, looking into the camera. “A challenge to not only continue on my path, but to push beyond it and stay vocal even when silence feels safer.”

Minnesota Twins outfielder Nelson Cruz received the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award in a videotaped piece introduced by the late boxer’s daughter, Laila. Cruz has helped his hometown of Las Matas de Santa Cruz in the Dominican Republic build a police station, a medical clinic and acquire a fire truck and firefighting gear, as well as an ambulance.

Cruz cried and put his head in his hands before composing himself and saying, “From the bottom of my heart, my family, my foundation and my hometown, thank you.”

Snoop Dogg rapped a tribute to NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, tracing his life from high school to a career with the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in January.

Taquarius “TQ” Wair, who as a 4-year-old survived a house fire in 2005 that killed his 6-year-old sister, was honored with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. Wair was burned all over his body and given just a 20% chance to live. He lost fingers on his left hand. Wair began playing football at age 7 and is now playing at a junior college in Minnesota, with a goal of playing at a four-year school and in the NFL.

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin informed Wair via laptop that he was being honored. Wair was handed a box with the trophy inside. He pulled it out and said, “Oh my goodness. Thank you.”

“This is humbling for me,” Wair said. “My family won’t let me give up. Let’s see where I can go from here. Stay tuned.”

Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry introduced Kim Clavel as winner of the Pat Tillman Award for Service. The boxer from Montreal was preparing for her first main event bout on March 21 after winning the North American Boxing Federation female flyweight title last year. But the coronavirus pandemic meant the fight was canceled.

Clavel wasn’t idle for long. She had previous experience as a nurse in a maternity ward before focusing on boxing, so she began working in care units across Montreal over the last three months.

Via laptop, Clavel listened as her grandmother told her she was being honored with the award named after the player who left the NFL to join the Army after the 9/11 attacks. Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

“When I need motivation, I will look at this trophy,” Clavel said.

From her living room, Billie Jean King announced the winners of her namesake Youth Leadership Award, given to those tackling issues in their communities. Joel Apudo, Batouly Camara, Ally Friedman, Jaronn Islar, Chelsea Quito, Elijah Murphy and Niah Woods will receive either a $10,000 academic scholarship or a donation to the charity of their choice.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were named the Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year for their foundation that works to improve education, health care, homelessness and social justice in the city. The foundation will use the $100,000 award to continue its programs.

Actor-comedian Keegan-Michael Key hosted an Olympic reunion via Zoom, checking in with enough athletes to represent 150 medals, and a Michael Phelps impersonator.

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NASCAR: Noose found in Bubba Wallace garage at Alabama race

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — NASCAR has launched an investigation after a noose was found in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the elite Cup Series who just two weeks ago successfully pushed the stock car series to ban the Confederate flag at its venues.

NASCAR said the noose was found on Sunday afternoon and vowed to do everything possible to find who was responsible and “eliminate them from the sport.”

“We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act,” the series said in a statement. “As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.”

On Twitter, Wallace said the “the despicable act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and how persistent we must be in the fight against racism.”

“As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you,’” he wrote. “ This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in.”

The noose was discovered on the same day NASCAR’s fledgling flag ban faced its biggest challenge. The ban took effect before last week’s race near Miami, but there were only about 1,000 military members admitted into that race.

At Talladega, in the heart of the South, as many as 5,000 fans were allowed in, even though rain postponed the race until Monday and visitors were barred from the infield. No flags were spotted Sunday, but cars and pickup trucks driving along nearby roads were flying the flag and parading past the entrance to the superspeedway over the weekend. A small plane flew over the track Sunday pulling a banner with the flag and the words “Defund NASCAR.”

Wallace’s 2013 victory in a Truck Series race was only the second in a NASCAR national series by an Black driver (Wendell Scott, 1963) and helped push him into the Cup Series, where he drives the No. 43 for Hall of Famer Richard Petty and is forced to scramble for sponsorship dollars.

Wallace, a 26-year-old Alabama native, said he has found support among fellow drivers for his stance on the flag. He noted that in his tweet after the noose announcement.

“Over the last several weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the support from people across the NASCAR industry including other drivers and team members in the garage,” he said. “Together, our sport has made a commitment to driving real change and championing a community that is accepting and welcoming of everyone. Nothing is more important and we will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate.”

NASCAR has spent years trying to distance itself from the Confederate flag, long a part of its moonshine-running roots from the its founding more than 70 years ago. Five years ago, former chairman Brian France tried to ban flying the flags at tracks, a proposal that was not enforced and largely ignored.

This year was different and it was Wallace who led the charge. Over the past month as the nation has been roiled by social unrest largely tied to the death of George Floyd, Wallace wore a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” at one race and had a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme at another.

Wallace, whose father is white, was not always outspoken about racism; even after Floyd was killed last month while in police custody in Minneapolis, he was not the first driver to speak out for racial equality. He has said he began to find his public voice on racism after watching video in May of Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting in Georgia. He said he now recognizes he must not let his platform as a prominent driver go to waste.

NBA star LeBron James tweeted his support to Wallace, calling the noose “sickening!”

“ Know you don’t stand alone! I’m right here with you as well as every other athlete,” James wrote. “I just want to continue to say how proud I am of you for continuing to take a stand for change here in America and sports!”

Talladega is one of the more raucous stops on the NASCAR schedule, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted the series, like all sports, to ban or sharply limit fans for months. The scene this weekend was a dramatic departure from the Talladega norm with plenty of room for social distancing and fans asked to wear masks.

David Radvansky, 32, of suburban Atlanta showed up Sunday with his wife and boys, 3 and 6. Radvansky, who started coming to Talladega in the 1990s when his father parked cars at races, applauded NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag.

“I don’t think there’s a place for it in NASCAR, to be honest with you,” the 32-year-old said. “That doesn’t sit well with all the good ole boys but it is what it is.”

Across from the track, Ed Sugg’s merchandise tent was flying Confederate flags prominently in a display alongside Trump 2020 banners and an American flag.

“People are disappointed that NASCAR has taken that stance. It’s been around for as long as all of us have been,” said Sugg, a Helena, Alabama, resident who has been selling wares at NASCAR races for 21 years.

“I don’t think anybody really connects it to any kind of racism or anything,” he said. “It’s just a Southern thing. It’s transparent. It’s just a heritage thing.”

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As Florida test numbers rise, the NBA prepares for Disney

The rate of positive coronavirus tests in the Orlando, Florida, area has been soaring in recent days.

The NBA hopes that doesn’t matter.

After spending weeks on putting together an incredibly elaborate series of health and safety protocols — the word “testing” appears 282 times in the document — the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association believe they have done what is necessary to keep the 22 teams and others who will be part of the season restart at the Disney campus near Orlando next month safe and healthy.

Ready or not, basketball is almost back.

“No one is suggesting that this is going to be an infection-free, guaranteed environment,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told The Associated Press. “I guess, unless we go to … well, where would we go? What state has the lowest rate? There’s just no way of finding a sterile environment probably on this planet, but certainly, not in this country.”

Among the details that were included in the protocols released to teams Tuesday night: players will be invited to wear what the league calls a “proximity alarm” that will set off an audio alert when the person is within six feet of another person for more than five seconds and therefore not following social distancing guidelines, plus they can choose to wear a ring that will generate “a wellness assessment derived from metrics such as body temperature and respiratory and heart rate.”

Players and staff will also be given thermometers and a pulse oximeter so they can track their data and record it on the league’s daily health platform.

“I am optimistic about the NBA’s return to play policies and procedures,” Denver coach Michael Malone, who found out last month that he had already beaten COVID-19 after an antibody test showed he had the virus. “They are going to do whatever it takes to make this the safest environment as possible. There are no guarantees and there will be a risk, but I feel confident in the measures to be taken pre-Orlando and once in Orlando.”

True, there will be a risk.

And the league acknowledges that no plan can be perfect.

“These Protocols are designed to promote prevention and mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to, and transmission of, the coronavirus,” the league said. “However, it is possible that staff, players, or other participants in the resumption of the 2019-20 season nonetheless may test positive or contract the coronavirus.”

But by following strict rules — including regular testing, no leaving the Disney campus without returning to quarantine, no unauthorized guests, no family members even being permitted to arrive until late August and, though this didn’t likely have to be said, no spitting on the court — the NBA and the NBPA hope the risk is minimal as teams prepare for a Disney stay that could exceed three months for the teams that make the NBA Finals.

“It’ll still probably bother everybody that we’re not home,” Miami center Bam Adebayo said. “But at the end of the day, we’ll be happy to play basketball.”

The NBA’s arrival at Disney is looming as the rate of positive tests around the state are rising, and officials such as Gov. Ron DeSantis are facing criticism for re-opening many parts of the state’s economy. But if NBA players aren’t venturing out among the public, the hope is that no matter what’s going on beyond Disney’s fences that the quasi-bubble for basketball won’t be affected.

The rate of positive tests in the Orlando area in the seven-day period ending Monday was nearly 6%. For the seven days immediately preceding that, it was 2.4% — meaning the rate has more than doubled in a one-week span.

“It’s concerning but not surprising,” Roberts said. “I’ve watched this governor behave as if the virus is an inconvenience as opposed to a virus. So, I guess watching the way the state is adhering or not adhering to CDC guidelines, it’s not surprising that these numbers would go up.”

DeSantis has said Florida’s rising numbers reflects more testing and other factors, though the percentage of positive tests is also significantly higher than was the case just a couple weeks ago across the state and in the Orlando area.

The state’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, tweeted Tuesday that DeSantis “has lost control” of Florida’s response to the pandemic and recklessly re-opened the state “despite the data screaming for caution.”

DeSantis is a Republican; Fried is the only elected Democrat to currently hold a statewide office.

“My solace is that our guys are not going to be out and about in the city of Orlando,” Roberts said. “The players will be flown in non-commercial, and they will essentially be on campus for the entirety of their stay until such time as their season ends.”

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NBA owners approve 22-team season restart plan

The NBA’s Board of Governors has approved a 22-team format for restarting the league season in late July at the Disney campus near Orlando, Florida, another major step toward getting teams back onto the court and playing games again.

The format calls for each team playing eight games to determine playoff seeding plus the possible utilization of a play-in tournament for the final spot in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference postseason fields. The National Basketball Players Association has a call on Friday to approve the plan as well.

Thursday’s vote was the most significant step yet in the process of trying to resume a season that was suspended nearly three months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic. There are numerous other details for the league to continue working through — including finalizing specifics of what the testing plan will be once teams arrive next month at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports complex and the calculating the financial ramifications of playing a shortened regular season.

“The Board’s approval of the restart format is a necessary step toward resuming the NBA season,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “While the COVID-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges, we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts.”

Meanwhile, a person speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the details of the ongoing talks have not been publicly released, said the NBPA and the NBA are continuing to work on a “lengthy” medical protocols document. The details of that document will be shared with teams once those discussions are completed, said the person, who added that teams should receive them in plenty of time for them to prepare for their arrivals at the Disney-ESPN complex.

The NBA also said it is planning to have the draft lottery Aug. 25, the draft on Oct. 15 and start next season on Dec. 1.

If all 22 teams that are going to Disney next month play their allotted eight games before the postseason begins, the NBA would play 1,059 games in this regular season. That means 171 regular season games would be canceled, which could cost players around $600 million in salary.

Those 22 clubs would play somewhere between 71 and 75 regular season games if the Disney portion of the schedule is completed, down from the customary 82-game slate. The teams who didn’t qualify for the restart will see their seasons end after having played somewhere between 64 and 67 games.

But one of the biggest hurdles is now cleared, and if things go according to plan an NBA champion for a season unlike any other will be crowned in October. The season could go into that month if the league goes ahead with its plan for the same playoff rules as usual, that being every round utilizing a best-of-seven format.

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Teams will likely arrive at the Disney complex around July 7. Once there, camps will continue and teams will likely have the chance to have some scrimmages or “preseason” games against other clubs before the regular season resumes.

Thursday’s move by the board of governors — one that came, coincidentally, on the same day this season’s NBA Finals would have started if these were normal times — was largely a formality. The NBA considered countless restart options after suspending the season on March 11, whittled that list down to four possibilities last week and from there the 22-team plan quickly began gaining momentum.

The 22-team plan includes all teams that were holding playoff spots when the season was stopped, plus all other clubs within six games of a postseason berth.

Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston and reigning NBA champion Toronto had already clinched playoff berths. Now with only eight games remaining for each team, it means that eight other clubs — Miami, Indiana, Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver, Utah, Oklahoma City and Houston — have postseason spots secured, and Dallas virtually has one as well.

That leaves nine teams vying for three remaining playoff berths. In the East, Brooklyn, Orlando and Washington are in the race for two spots. In the West, Memphis, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix will jostle for one spot.

If the gap between eighth place and ninth place in either conference is four games or less when the shortened regular season ends, those teams will go head-to-head for the No. 8 seed. The team in ninth place would have to go 2-0 in a two-game series to win the berth; otherwise, the No. 8 seed would advance to the postseason.

Thursday’s decision also means that the seasons for Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, Golden State, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago and Charlotte are over. The Knicks will miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, the third-longest current drought in the league behind Sacramento and Phoenix — who still have chances of getting into the playoffs this season.

And with the Hawks not moving on, it also means Vince Carter has almost certainly played the final game of his 22-year NBA career — the longest in league history.

Carter, the first player in NBA history to appear in four different decades, is retiring. He appeared in 1,541 NBA games, behind only Robert Parish (1,611) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560) on the league’s all-time list.

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Virus-proofing sports facilities presents a big challenge

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The jersey-wearing camaraderie. The scent of sizzling sausages. The buzz before a big game.

The distinctive atmosphere of live sports, that feeling in the air, will return in time as pandemic restrictions are eased. But will that very air be safe in a closed arena with other fans in attendance?

The billions of dollars spent on state-of-the-art sports facilities over the last quarter-century have made high-efficiency air filtration systems more common, thanks in part to the pursuit of green and healthy building certifications. Upgrades will likely increase in the post-coronavirus era, too.

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The problem is that even the cleanest of air can’t keep this particular virus from spreading; if someone coughs or sneezes, those droplets are in the air. That means outdoor ballparks have high contaminant potential, too.

“Most of the real risk is going to be short-distance transmission, people sitting within two, three or four seats of each other,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “It’s not really about the virus spreading up, getting into the ventilation system and then getting blown out to the entire stadium because this virus doesn’t seem to transmit that way. It doesn’t aerosolize that well.”

The three hours spent in proximity to thousands of others is part of the fan experience. It’s also why major sports leagues have been discussing plans to reopen in empty venues, for now. High-touch areas with the potential to spread the virus — called fomite transmission — are plentiful at the ballgame, of course. Door handles. Stair rails. Restroom fixtures. Concession stands.

Hand washing by now has become a societal norm, but disinfectant arsenals need to be brought up to speed, too.

“I can’t really find good hand sanitizer easily in stores. So think about trying to scale that up, so everybody who comes into U.S. Bank Stadium gets a little bottle of Purel. Things like that can be modestly helpful,” Demmer said.

There is much work to be done. Vigilant sanitizing of the frequent-touch surfaces will be a must. Ramped-up rapid testing capability during pre-entry screening could become common for fans. Minimizing concourse and entry bottlenecks, and maintaining space between non-familial attendees, could be mandatory. Mask-wearing requirements? Maybe.

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Kobe Bryant’s sports academy retires ‘Mamba’ nickname

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Southern California sports academy previously co-owned by Kobe Bryant has retired his “Mamba” nickname and rebranded itself nearly four months after the basketball icon’s death in a helicopter crash.

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people were killed Jan. 26 as they flew to a basketball tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy.

The Thousand Oaks-based facility said it would return to its original name of Sports Academy. It was founded in 2016. Bryant, who spent 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and helped the franchise win five NBA championships, joined in 2018.

Games were being played at the academy when the news broke of Bryant’s death. Players immediately stopped and many people in the gym burst into tears when told that Bryant was aboard the helicopter that crashed.

The academy is under consideration as a home base for an NBA minor league program that will provide one year of preparation, on and off the court, for some elite players who chose to bypass college but are not yet eligible for the NBA draft.

Bryant is the only NBA player to have his team retire two numbers in his honor. He was selected last month for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. A ceremony is scheduled for late August though it may be delayed until at least October because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bryant’s production company, Granity Studios, has remained active since his death. The latest children’s book released by Bryant’s company last month — “The Wizenard Series: Season One” — became his fifth book to reach No. 1 on The New York Times’ best-seller lists.

The helicopter crash remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In February, Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, sued the estate of pilot Ara Zobayan and the charter company that owned the helicopter, Island Express. She claimed Zobayan failed “to use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft” and alleged negligence.

On Friday, Zobayan’s brother, Berge Zobayan, said in a court filing that Kobe Bryant knew the risks of helicopter flying and his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate, t he Los Angeles Times reported.

Island Express responded in court papers Monday saying they are not responsible for damages, calling the crash, among other things, “an act of God” and “an unavoidable accident” that was beyond their control. The charter company also said the Bryants knew of the risks and dangers of flying in a helicopter and “voluntarily assume(d) the risk of the accident, injury, and damages” when they got on the chopper.

Vanessa Bryant separately last week filed a claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after deputies were accused of sharing unauthorized photos of the crash site. The claim was first reported by PEOPLE; the investigation into the deputies’ photos was initially published by the Times. The sheriff has declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation

The survivors of crash victims Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton filed a complaint Monday against the helicopter company and the pilot’s estate. Families of other victims previously filed lawsuits.

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If games resume, athletes will ‘need to know when to peak’

Making it safe for America’s professional sports teams to start playing games is one thing.

Making sure athletes are in game shape is another.

The coronavirus pandemic brought sports to a halt, but stay-at-home orders are starting to be eased and a handful of NBA teams are opening practice facilities.

For players, the difference between merely working out and playing games will be a significant jump, and experts say things shouldn’t be rushed. With athletes unable to simulate game or even practice activity at home, they will need time before resuming competition.

“Whatever the amount of time is, just know that players will have the input and say so because we’re the ones that’s playing, and that comes first,” said Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players Association. “We don’t ever want to put guys in a situation where their injury risk is high. It varies from player to player. But it’s at least got to be three to four weeks.”

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego said players could be at different points based on their access to equipment.

“There’s veterans out there that may have a court in their home, in their facility and they’re probably a little bit more ready to go than others,” he said. “I think we’re talking weeks. This isn’t something where after one week these guys are ready to go.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said on multiple occasions he believes a two- to three-week training camp would be needed before the season resumes. Many hockey teams have had trainers send at-home workout routines to players, but few if any have been on the ice in months.

“As much as I could mentally be in game mode, your body’s not ready for it if you don’t get a full offseason of training and if you don’t get to play a long training camp with like seven exhibition games,” Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. “If you only get a week training camp with a couple exhibition games, you’re going to ruin your body.”

Edmonton Oilers forward Alex Chiasson said it is on the athlete to be ready.

“That’s going to be on us,” he said. “We’re professional athletes. We’ve got to make sure we prepare. It’s not easy, but it is what it is, and we’ve got to deal with the situation as best as we can.”

While basketball and hockey were nearing their playoffs, baseball was in spring training when sports were shut down. It created a particular wrinkle for pitchers, who tend to train methodically toward full games.

Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said he expects another period that resembles spring training before games are played.

“The most important part of any spring training is preparation for your pitchers, especially your starting pitchers,” Rizzo said. “Whenever you have to expedite a spring training, that’s probably the most impactful decision that you have to make: how to ramp them up.”

Baltimore Orioles GM Mike Elias agreed.

“When baseball does come back, you have to worry about guys going a very small number of innings,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve come up with a solution to that. … The public health guidelines makes it tough to do it without a training staff and coaches. Some of the pitchers are throwing into nets in their backyards and hitters are hitting off the tee.”

Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino said the pitchers were his biggest concern.

“The biggest worry is injuries,” he said. “It’s one of those things, I think guys are staying in shape, they’re throwing now. Hopefully a few weeks is enough. I think we’ll have to be smart as the season opens to keep guys fresh.”

Dr. Mike Reinold, senior medical adviser for the Chicago White Sox, said the challenge for pitchers has been how to at least maintain what they gained from their previous spring training progression.

“It will take around three weeks to get a starting pitcher likely ramped up to five innings, but that assumes that they have done the work to maintain themselves and are ready to even start that progression,” he said.

Reinold said preparing is complicated because there is no return date set: “They need to know when to peak.”

“That’s a big, important concept when we’re trying to get our athletes ready for a competitive season that they’re building for,” he said. “This is the first time in my career that we’ve ever not had that.”

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton said assessing each player’s condition after the layoff will be a key part of getting things rolling again. He said those conversations are happening even now.

“We don’t need a soft-tissue (injury) because guys were a little bit behind,” he said. “That’s why the openness of the player and the conversations we’re having now are so important so we have a baseline coming in.”

Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns said a second preseason probably wouldn’t need to be too long once it’s deemed safe.

“Once it’s safe, we can turn this thing on pretty quickly,” he said.

Elias agreed: “We will be ready, and baseball will be ready for America when America is ready for us.”

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NBA delays reopening; A new approach awaits

The NBA has delayed the possible reopening date of some team practice facilities for at least a week to at least May 8, saying Monday that more time is needed to ensure that players are safe and controlled in an effort to mitigate the threats caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The NBA continues to pursue plans to reopen, but with additional rules. When those facilities are reopened, the rules will be strict, experts say. While the May 8 date is far from firm, the NBA reportedly told teams that “they can delay this time if events warrant it.” The league planned to give teams the option to reopen facilities as early as Friday, although it ultimately decided that it would comply with local government orders to remain close.

When they do open, however, there will be no immediate return to normal. A person with knowledge of the league’s plans said players would have to wear face masks inside the facility, except during exercise, and that any staff member present would have to wear face masks and gloves, as well. They will also require a maximum of 12 people present, all of whom will maintain a distance of six feet from one another. The exception in that 12 foot case would be when medical or athletic training personnel are in contact with players. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the details were not publicly disclosed.

There are many other details of the league’s facility reopening protocols, the person said, including: All equipment used by players in their voluntary training, including basketball, must be disinfected before reuse; Players will not be able to share towels, and teams will not be able to utilize steam rooms, saunas, cold bathtubs, oxygen chambers or cryotherapy chambers in the available facilities; Teams will have to designate a staff member as “Hygiene Officer of Facilities “to oversee all new policies. Players must enter the facilities alone, without family, friends or personal security.

“Our top priority remains everyone’s health and well-being, and we will continue to follow NBA guidelines, as we continue to listen to experts and publicize local government directives,” said Orlando Magic spokesman Joel Glass.

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Jordan: Winning 6th NBA title with Bulls was ‘trying year’

CHARLOTTE, N.C (AP) — Michael Jordan described his final NBA championship season with the Chicago Bulls as a “trying year.”

“We were all trying to enjoy that year knowing it was coming to an end,” Jordan told Good Morning America on Thursday. Jordan appeared on the show via video conference from his home in Florida to promote the “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series focused on the final year of the 90′s Bulls dynasty that won six NBA titles in eight years.

“The beginning of the season, it started when (general manager) Jerry Krause told (coach) Phil Jackson that he could go 82-0 and he would never get a chance to come back,” Jordan said. “Knowing that I had married myself to him, and if he wasn’t going to be the coach, then obviously I wasn’t going to play. So Phil started off the season saying this was the last dance — and we played it that way.”

The series will debut Sunday night on ESPN in the United States and on Netflix internationally over five consecutive Sundays through May 17. There will be two hour-long episodes each of those nights.

Jordan said Thursday that after Jackson told the team it was to be the final season together, the Bulls focused on completing the task of a second three-peat.

“Mentally it tugged at you that this had to come to an end, but it also centered our focus to making sure we ended it right,” Jordan said. “As sad as it sounded at the beginning of the year, we tried to rejoice and enjoy the year and finish it off the right way.”

The documentary was originally scheduled to be released in June during the NBA Finals, but ESPN made the decision to accelerate its release due to the lack of live sports programming because of the coronavirus pandemic. The series has been billed to include never-before-seen footage from that season, during which the team chased its sixth championship.

But the documentary covers more than just the final season.

The documentary shows Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Jordan arguing about a foot injury he suffered during his second NBA season.

Jordan wanted to play through the injury after doctors told the team there was a 90% chance he would recover.

Reinsdorf, however, did not want the star guard to play for fear it might ruin his career.

“I said to Michael, you’re not thinking about the risk-reward ratio,” Reinsforf said in the clip aired by GMA. “If you had a terrible headache and I gave you a bottle of pills and nine of the pills would cure you and one of the pills would kill you, would you take a pill?”

Jordan replied that “it depends on how (expletive) bad the headache is.”

Reinsdorf ultimately won out; Jordan sat out 64 games that season before returning for the playoffs.

Jordan also talks about his time at the University of North Carolina where he would write his mother asking for money for postage stamps so he could send her letters and to pay his phone bill.

“It’s a little different today,” Jordan said. “I had a phone bill in college that was $60 or less, but I only had $20 in my account. The thing that people will learn, and my kids will laugh about when they see it, is we used postage stamps back in those days. Looking at the video you will see things that people have forgot, that life was this way.

“We didn’t have Instagram or Twitter, so you had to live life as it came. … Spending time with friends and family, it wasn’t the phone. It was in presence — and you wrote letters.”

Jordan discussed his parents during the interview with Good Morning America, saying they were the biggest influence in his life. He said he learned many valuable lessons from them, including the ability to learn from the negatives in life and turn them into positives.

He also praised his older brother, Larry.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my brother Larry,” Jordan said. “Larry pushed me. We used to fight after every game. But through that fight emerged someone like me. He’s right next to me and supports me.”

The series will also include extensive profiles of Jackson, and some of Jordan’s key teammates, including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr.