Comedy clubs can be great, but if you really want a belly laugh, you need to be standing in the locker room of a billion-dollar stadium that is home to a billion-dollar franchise owned by a billionaire who employs dozens of millionaires, when a young athlete adopts a serious expression, exhales sharply and says …
“It’s just a business.”
On Thursday, the sports world ran face-first into a solid wall, as every conscionable league canceled or postponed events because of the coronavirus.
On Friday, the Vikings released two former stars, nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and the University of Minnesota announced that Richard Pitino will remain as the men’s basketball coach.
The games have stopped. The business of sports never will.
The WNBA and NFL continue to prepare for their drafts, even if they won’t be sending scouts around the country this week. The NFL continues to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with its players.
College recruiters are likely buying bushels of phones, in honor of former Wolves guard Sam Cassell, who owned so many phones he carried them in a mesh bag.
Baseball players will continue to prepare for their season, somewhere, with someone. NHL and NBA players will continue to prepare for resumption of the regular season or the playoffs.
Even amid crisis, so much will remain the same. Athletes will train, general managers will plan, coaches will scheme, agents will maneuver, reporters will report, sports channels will scrounge and Rick Spielman will continue to leak stories to the NFL Network.
Scoreboards will remain blank, but everyone in the business will still keep score, no matter how devastating our health crisis becomes.
The Vikings’ decisions are proof. Joseph and Rhodes were key players, key members of the defense that ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed in 2017, acquisitions Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer could be proud of.
Joseph was the massive, run-stopping tackle who held ground in the middle of the line while his teammates relied on speed. Rhodes was the first-round draft pick who used his size and toughness to become a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback.
The timing of the Vikings’ move may seem heartless. It’s not. It’s the way their ruthless business works.
Firing Pitino? That would have felt heartless.
His season ended after a victory in the Big Ten tournament, less than a year after he beat Louisville in the NCAA tournament. He made the tournament two of the past three years and has had terrible luck with injuries, with point guard Nate Mason limping into the tournament in 2017, Eric Curry missing most of his promising career because of injuries, and star forward Jordan Murphy being injured before the second round of the NCAA tournament last year.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle now employs one revenue-sport coach he didn’t hire — Pitino. Coyle could have compared Pitino unfavorably with football coach P.J. Fleck. Instead, he adopted the patience he is affording women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen and men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko, both of whom have yet to win big but should be given time to build their programs.
Friday’s breaking news provided a reminder that no matter how much sports fills our airwaves, most of the work is done in private, and during a sport’s downtime.
During their rivalry, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird would return to their teams in the fall having developed a new skill. One year, Johnson learned the baby hook, and used it to beat the Celtics.
The latest news is also a reminder that in the age of social media, sports are almost as popular during the offseason as they are when playing games. While other sports languish, the NFL will make vital roster decisions, dive into free agency and prepare for the draft.
Already the most popular sport in American history, the NFL will thrive in the midst of a pandemic, because in the business of modern sports, personnel moves and speculation about them can fuel even a 24-hour network.