March 11, 2020 will go down as one of the most important days in the history of America. And of all aspects of American life to serve as an announcement of the arrival of the coronavirus to American shores, it was sports that took center stage.
In the early evening hours, news broke that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, becoming the first North American athlete to test positive. Within days, the NBA postponed its season indefinitely and the NCAA cancelled March Madness, but greater than that, the American public realized the implications of the virus and its threat to everyday life, from entertainment industries to education to travel.
2020 was an awful year, but begged questions about sports and its place in our culture that really hadn’t been asked in a normal year. Where is the line between safety and money, especially with amateur athletes? At what cost will leagues pay for the show to go on? How will leagues respond to social justice movements that affect schedules? All of this in addition to the normal questions that frequent First Take and Get Up, like Dak Prescott’s contract and the LeBron-MJ debate.
Here’s to 2021 being a better year than 2020 and (hopefully) get back to normal. While not as deep and fundamental as the questions last year posed, here are (roughly in chronological order) my burning questions for sports in the New Year.
- Will Pat Fitzgerald stay at Northwestern?
As someone who hopes to cover Northwestern football and greatly enjoys their relevance on the national stage, I really hope that Fitzgerald keeps his position. There’s certainly no danger for him to lose it — he’s the most accomplished coach in program history, one of the most revered Chicago natives and has won two of the last three Big Ten West titles. But with athletic director Jim Phillips leaving to be the ACC’s next commissioner, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retiring and transfers departing on both sides of the ball, there’s a lot of questions going forward for NU football. Oh, and multiple NFL teams have inquired about Fitzgerald, a couple years after he turned down interviews to coach Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. We’ll get our answer in the next couple weeks. I sure hope it’s a positive one.
- Does the Tampa Bay-Tom Brady pairing explode in January?
Tampa Bay has been must-watch TV in 2020 after longtime Patriot Tom Brady decided to move south for the warm weather and explosive receiving corps of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There have been bumps in the road, but the Bucs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and the NFC is wide open. My pick as the NFC representative for the Super Bowl looks great at times and dysfunctional at others, and it’ll take synergy between coach Bruce Arians’ aggressive passing attack and Brady’s passing preferences for the Bucs to return to Tampa for the Big Game.
- Can anyone stop Patrick Mahomes?
Patrick Mahomes had a fantastic 2020. The guy won the Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP with an electric fourth quarter comeback, then signed for a record $500 million with the Chiefs in the offseason. Aaron Rodgers will likely take MVP honors this season, but Mahomes isn’t far behind and has a 14-1 record, best in the NFL. Buffalo and Baltimore could challenge the Chiefs in the AFC and the Packers and Saints would be tough Super Bowl matchups. Still, the Chiefs are at the peak of their powers and deserve to be the overwhelming favorites.
- Does Northwestern basketball make it to March?
One of the shockers of 2020 was the turnaround for Northwestern men’s basketball, the team I cover for the Daily Northwestern. A Cats team that finished 3-17 in the Big Ten last season is now 3-1 and ranked heading into January, only the fifth time they’ve been ranked in the last 50 YEARS. The Wildcats have relied primarily on internal development, along with the additions of Chase Audige and Ty Berry as complementary pieces, and look capable of making the jump to contender. I’ll pencil in two victories against Nebraska, but can Northwestern tack on a couple other impressive wins to boost their resume? If so, a second-ever March Madness berth could be in the cards.
- Where do the Cowboys and Dak Prescott meet on contract talks?
The Dak Prescott contract negotiations have dragged on for nearly three years, most recently culminating in the franchise tag and Prescott’s decision to play through 2020 and bet on himself. Though Prescott lit it up early in the season, he suffered an ankle injury against the Giants that knocked him out for the year and the Cowboys weren’t the same afterward. The regressions of a couple other big-money quarterbacks, including division rival Carson Wentz, make a big contract something of a gamble, but Dallas would be wise to lock up number 4 with a rich deal if they want to be contenders.
- How many quarterbacks are drafted in the top ten of the NFL Draft?
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is going number one to the Jacksonville Jaguars — that much is for certain. After that, there’s a whole list of quarterback-needy teams and a bunch of intriguing options available. Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones are on the radars of NFL teams, and an early run on QBs (maybe a flurry of trades, too) is more than possible. Considering the jumps of teams like Miami and Kansas City with quarterbacks on rookie deals, these moves could impact teams in the short term as much as the long run.
- Who survives the Eastern Conference?
The Miami Heat were something of a surprise to reach the bubble version of the NBA Finals, and though they bowed out to the Lakers, they showed the grit necessary to compete with the best teams. But a repeat trip to the Finals will be difficult, and the Heat are hardly the favorites. Milwaukee retooled its lineup with guard Jrue Holiday and signed Giannis Antetokoumpo to a long term extension, solidifying them as title contenders. Northwestern grad and Sixers GM Daryl Morey could revitalize the Sixers and the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid duo, while Brad Stevens will lead a young and talented Celtics team led by Jayson Tatum. And the Orlando Magic…well, I’ll just be happy if the Magic get in.
- Will we have an Olympic Games?
One of the sports casualties of 2020 was the Olympic Games — I mean, how do you run an event with 200 counties during a pandemic? The IOC seems intent on delaying the Olympics to Summer of 2021, which raises plenty of feasibility questions. Will there be a bubble? Will the standards for entry be more difficult or the offerings slashed? A successful Olympic Games would extend beyond the sports world and be nothing short of a historic triumph, but an international event of this size going sideways could spell disaster.
- Can Slam Diego make a deep postseason run?
The young gun Padres were the story of the abbreviated 2020 MLB regular season. In the Hot Stove season, the rich got richer when San Diego traded for aces Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. The Dodgers are the reigning champions, but their SoCal neighbors are stealing their thunder and could steal the division behind youngsters like Fernando Tatis Jr. and their top-notch rotation. No team exemplified fun as well as the Padres last year. With heightened expectations, the Padres are more legit but play the Cinderella role no longer.
- Will fans return to the stands?
The question of 2020 was how sports would weather the storm of the coronavirus pandemic. The question of 2021 will be how sports will recover and return to some level of normalcy. Across the NFL, NBA, and NCAA football, each team has had a different process in including fans — how will that play out post-vaccine? How will leagues ensure COVID-free playoffs and reduce any competitive disadvantages due to the virus? I sure hope to spend a summer day at Wrigley Field or Camden Yards or cheer from the sidelines of Ryan Field, but nothing is for certain. I do know this — once fans can return to stadiums safely, our patience will be rewarded.