Why Premier League's return (and England's grim coronavirus response) are pertinent to American sports

The Premier League’s plan to restart its 2019-20 season on June 17 — exactly 100 days after shuttering in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic — is welcome news for voracious followers of the world’s most popular domestic soccer circuit.

It’s the latest sign that other globally relevant leagues like the NFL and NBA might also return in due time. The NHL plans on coming back in July. The NWSL, widely considered the world’s best women’s soccer league, will become the first North American league to return when it kicks off June 27.

The rest aren’t quite there yet. The NFL continues to act like like it will be business as usual this fall, at least publicly. Both the NBA and MLS are in talks with the Walt Disney Company, owners of broadcasting behemoth ESPN, about hosting all of their teams and games at the sprawling sports complex in Orlando, Florida, but nothing has been agreed to yet. Major League Baseball’s team owners and players are still at an impasse over money.

Still, you can be sure that the top executives in those USA-based organizations will be watching what happens with the Premier League with keen eyes. Its decisions will inform theirs. It’s a test run of sorts that will help determine how successful their own plans to restart will be.

Like the United States, the United Kingdom has been very hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. has suffered over 100,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, more than any other nation in the world. The U.K. is second, with more than 37,000. Per capita, Britain’s toll is almost twice as grim as America’s.

The United Kingdom's response to the coronavirus pandemic is, sadly, much closer to the United States' response. Which will make however the Premier League return plays out all the more telling. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Compare those figures to Germany, which earlier this month allowed the Bundesliga to play matches minus fans and has experienced only minor glitches in the process. Thanks to its early and thorough efforts to stop the spread of the contagion, Germany is averaging 10 deaths per 100,000 people. The U.S. is at 30. The United Kingdom, meantime, is at 58.

So it’s fair to wonder about the wisdom of the Prem’s plans. They do seem rushed in light of the facts on the ground. More than a few Premier League players have expressed reservations about starting again so soon.

“The majority of players are scared because they have family, they have children, they have babies,” said star Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero.

At the heart of those concerns is this question: Is England ready for this?

Fears that it may not be are justified, and not only because of the chilling numbers above. From the beginning, neither the British government nor the Premier League’s brass have demonstrated anything approaching competent, responsible leadership.

On the same day in March that France forced a high-stakes Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund to be played in an empty Parc des Princes, the United Kingdom allowed more than 52,000 fans — including 3,000 who traveled from Spain, then an epicenter of the outbreak — into Anfield for Liverpool’s round of 16 second leg against Atletico Madrid. It was later discovered that decision led directly to the deaths of 41 people, according to an analysis of data from Britain’s National Health Service.

The Premier League was similarly slow to act. Even after almost all of its counterparts in Europe and North America followed the NBA’s lead and shut down their leagues on March 11 or 12, the Prem announced that it would continue with a full slate of games that weekend and do so with thousands of fans packed tightly inside its stadiums. Only after a player and manager tested positive for COVID-19 was the world’s most popular sports league forced to also close up shop.

That sorry track record doesn’t inspire confidence that this is the right move. As much as we all hope that the Premier League can return safely next month, it is essentially volunteering to be a guinea pig. If it fails, the Prem’s plan will serve as a cautionary tale for the big-time sports leagues closer to home.

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