Sport is one of the universal lenses used to understand the realities of COVID-19, but Canadian basketball player Kevin Pangos is experiencing first hand how foggy that lens has become.
Being the athlete caught in the middle makes an already confusing situation even more conflicting for Pangos, who has been stuck in his Barcelona apartment with his wife and their baby girl waiting for news on whether he’ll be asked to play.
“As an athlete you have mixed feelings with wanting to play because of that competitive side, and keeping your body safe, your family safe and your future safe,” Pangos told CBC Sports. “Because if you get injured, that’s possibly next year’s contract and next year’s opportunity to play.
“At the end of the day, I’m still trying to grasp what’s going on like everyone else.”
Multiple leagues, multiple feelings
Pangos is a member of Canada’s national team, which had its qualification journey paused when the International Olympic Committee historically postponed Tokyo 2020 until the summer of 2021. So Pangos no longer had to worry about that.
But he also plays for FC Barcelona, a city team that plays in both the Liga Endesa (Spain) and EuroLeague. The latter officially cancelled its season on May 25, unable to find an option that could ensure the safety of players and fans as well as maintain the integrity of the season.
Liga Endesa, on the other hand, announced Wednesday it will finish its season in a two-week tournament in June, where 12 teams will battle for the league title.
Pangos admits the notion of playing again is an exciting one, despite the obvious concerns around whether the league’s precautions will be sufficient. Especially in a sport like basketball where keeping distance is impossible.
“At this point again, I’m just trying to control what I can control which is getting my body ready to play,” Pangos said. “No use in looking at it from the other side … As long as the testing is regular and they’re doing their part to make that part safe, I’m ok with [playing] because I’m comfortable people will be healthy and not have the virus.”
On the other hand, he does respect EuroLeague’s decision to cancel the remainder of its season.
“I think at the end of the day EuroLeague got it right and they kind of bit the bullet,” he said. “Financially it’s probably not going to be very good for EuroLeague but I think they made the right decision and I think people respect that, especially athletes seeing they’re going to take a hit but they’re looking out for our best interests and our safety.”
How safe will it be?
But EuroLeague has challenges the Spanish league does not. Each European country has different laws and regulations in place, making logistics difficult and allowing for some teams to prepare better than others.
Spain will keep things local, with players travelling to Valencia and quarantining prior to the June 17th start date. And the league has kept tabs on athletes: Pangos and his teammates were tested at least three times in the past two weeks. Plus their training facility was highly monitored: athletes wear masks, enter in one door and exit through another and show up and leave in their practice clothes since locker rooms are closed.
“The biggest thing now is just [whether] we have sufficient preparations so that our bodies stay ready and not get injured,” said Pangos.
And that’s become a sticky point. With less than a month to go until tipoff, many doubt there’s enough time to be physically ready. Spain had very strict policies, only allowing households to leave their homes for groceries or emergencies.
“We had our first contact practice today as a team,” Pangos said. “But up until now I had maybe 20 metres that I could’ve run on the balcony, so that’s all you would’ve had to go into playing a sport professionally.
“You’re definitely not ready for the demands your body is going to take and it definitely puts you at risk. It’s not like you’re taking a normal two months off.”
Pangos says details surrounding the tournament are still up in the air and that there might be room for negotiation. But at the same time, players “can’t do much about it.”
What are they playing for?
So Pangos will do what he can to help FC Barcelona to a championship, but he admits winning this title would feel different.
“You’re going out there with short prep, with a change of the environment completely and you’re going for a little tournament that’s not even the same, so for me it does change a lot,” he said. “The risk and reward of it doesn’t really fulfil me the same way, so that’s too bad but that’s the situation right now.”
Maintaining the sport’s integrity was a big part of why EuroLeague cancelled its season: changing the competition format and reducing the number of teams would change what the league set out to do. But that isn’t stopping North American leagues like the NHL or NFL from finishing or starting their respective seasons in the pandemic, and other professional athletes have started voicing their doubts.
“We’re not robots out there,” Jacksonville Jaguars running back Chris Thompson told Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press. “People out there are saying, `Hey, with all that’s going on, we need sports back in our lives to get our minds off everything.’ That’s all good. But you’ve got to think about this, too: When we start back in training camp, you’re putting 90 guys from 90 different places all together … and it happens a lot that a lot of us get sick.”
But for now, all athletes like Pangos can do is have faith their leagues have the right plans in place and that now is indeed the right time for sport to fight back against COVID-19 … a reality we’ll learn soon enough.