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The Morning Dispatch: Sports Are Back, Finally!
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The Morning Dispatch: Sports Are Back, Finally!

Plus, are the polls to be trusted?

Happy Friday! A big thanks to the nearly 1,000 of you who tuned in to last night’s edition of Dispatch Live! Things certainly got … interesting. (If you missed it, members can watch a replay here.) 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 65,028 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 8.4 percent of the 774,193 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,058 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 144,242.

  • President Trump announced on Thursday that he is canceling the portion of the Republican National Convention scheduled to take place in Jacksonville, Florida, citing concerns over rising coronavirus cases in the state. “There’s nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe,” Trump said. His formal nomination is still scheduled to occur in Charlotte, North Carolina, on August 24.

  • More than 1.4 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, marking the first week-over-week increase in initial unemployment claims in nearly four months. About 31.8 million Americans are currently collecting unemployment benefits; the CARES Act’s $600-per-week boost is set to expire at the end of this month.

  • Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced his office is looking into DoJ law enforcement officers’s use of force in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. in recent months. A statement said the review will include “examining the training and instruction that was provided to the DoJ law enforcement personnel; compliance with applicable identification requirements, rules of engagement, and legal authorities; and adherence to DoJ policies regarding the use of less-lethal munitions, chemical agents, and other uses of force.”

  • Michael Cohen—the president’s former attorney who was convicted in 2018 for lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws—will be released from federal prison this afternoon. Cohen had been furloughed due to the coronavirus, but was rearrested and placed in solitary confinement after federal authorities claimed he refused to sign a home confinement agreement that would have prevented him from publishing his memoir during the rest of his sentence. A Manhattan judge deemed the fed’s actions “retaliatory,” but a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons called that finding “patently false.”

The Return of Professional Sports

For millions of Americans—your Morning Dispatchers included—the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic first set in when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, leading the NBA to announce it was suspending its season until further notice. That same night, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive , and President Trump addressed the nation, announcing a ban on all travel from Europe. Believe it or not, that was 135 days ago, or nearly 40 percent of a year.

In the two days following that fateful March 11, the NCAA canceled all remaining winter sports tournaments, including men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, Major League Baseball cut spring training short and put the season on hold, and the National Hockey League and XFL both suspended their seasons indefinitely. As we wrote at the time, “If it wasn’t clear before, it sure is now: Life is going to be significantly disrupted for all of us for several weeks, if not months.”

It’s been months. American sports fans watched longingly as leagues around the world—Bundesliga, the Korean Baseball Organization, Australian Super Rugby, La Liga—began returning to play, while our coronavirus reality prevented us from doing the same. 

Well, our coronavirus reality hasn’t gotten all that much better, but sports are starting to trickle back nonetheless. NASCAR and the PGA Tour were able to return a little more than a month ago, Major League Soccer in early July. But the “big four” leagues are on their way back, after a long hiatus. Here’s a quick summary of what to expect in the coming weeks from baseball and basketball.

Major League Baseball

It was a long road to Max Scherzer pumping a 95 mph fastball to Aaron Hicks to kick off the MLB season at Nationals Park last night. From a public health perspective, baseball is more akin to soccer—the games are outside, players can spread out, minimal contact—and probably could have returned sooner. The league’s original plan was American as hell: Kick off the season on the Fourth of July.

Money got in the way. Owners and its players union came to an agreement in late March on how revenue would be divided up. When it became clear that resumption would not include fans in the stands, owners wanted to renegotiate, contending that they would lose millions upon millions of dollars in a season without ticket sales and concessions. The players—who already consented to prorated salaries depending on the number of games played—balked at taking a further pay cut. The two sides squandered May and most of June on a very public and very nasty collective bargaining negotiation, before essentially reverting back to their original agreement on June 23. Players migrated to their team’s home cities by July 1, and the past three weeks have been spent shaking off rust and testing players and coaches for COVID-19 like crazy. Just 0.4 percent—93 out of 21,701—of tests conducted by the league have come back positive.

The season will be different, of course. Teams are playing only 60 of their customary 162 games, and these games will be against other clubs within the same geographic region—East, Central, and West—to cut down on travel. Fans will not be in attendance, at least to start the season, but stadiums will be pumping in crowd noise and Fox Sports will fill the bleachers with virtual humanoids for its Saturday broadcasts. (This last bit is too much, in our opinion.) Just yesterday, the league and players union agreed to expand the playoff field this year from 10 to 16 teams: The first- and second-place teams in each of the six divisions, plus four wild card teams.

The National League added the designated hitter, extra innings will start with a runner on second base, and rosters have been expanded from 25 players to 30 to begin the season. The minor league season was canceled, but each team was allowed to select 30 of their minor league players to add to a “taxi squad” that can fill in when players on the big league club get injured—or sick. Players are tested for COVID-19 multiple times per week—this system seems to have improved after a shaky start three weeks ago—and the league created a new COVID-19 injured list that players can leave once they test negative twice (24 hours apart), show no symptoms for three days, and get the go-ahead from team doctors. A handful of players have opted out of the season entirely, and dozens have contracted the coronavirus thus far.

Yesterday’s Opening Day was perhaps the perfect distillation of trying to play baseball—and sports, more broadly—during a global pandemic. It was wonderful to have baseball on TV again, but the star player of both the Washington Nationals and Declan’s fantasy team, Juan Soto, tested positive for COVID-19 just hours before first pitch—and the game got rained out in the sixth inning.

National Basketball Association

Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA had already played the bulk of its regular season when it was shut down on March 11, so its return-to-play plan is focused primarily on plowing through the playoffs. Rather than having teams crisscrossing the country, the league settled on what has colloquially become known as the Bubble.

The majority of the league—22 of the 30 teams (the other eight had no shot at the playoffs)—has flocked to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Florida, where all games will be played. Players and coaches were tested prior to entering the Bubble, and, once there, had to quarantine for 48 hours until they received two additional negative tests. If a player has to leave the Bubble for any reason, the same protocols will apply upon their return. Everyone is tested each night and receives results the next morning. A positive test results in at least seven days of isolation and quarantine, no matter if it’s LeBron James or Daniel Theis, and the league set up an anonymous hotline for those in The Bubble to report players or coaches violating safety guidelines. A remarkable zero (of 346) players have tested positive inside the Bubble since July 13.

Teams began scrimmaging against each other this week, and the season resumes on July 30. Each team will play eight “seeding games” between July 30 and August 14 to determine playoff matchups, and the playoffs will begin August 17.

Once August 17 rolls around, the playoffs will operate essentially as normal—aside from being in front of no fans instead of 20,000, in Orlando instead of around the country, and in August instead of April. Sixteen teams will advance, and play best-of-seven series until a champion is crowned no later than October 13, which is about two weeks before a typical NBA season usually starts.

Will LeBron capture his elusive fourth title, his first as a member of the Lakers? Or will he be thwarted by rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo (we copy and pasted that) and the Bucks in the East?

The Polls Are Bad for Trump. Are They to Be Believed?

Considering the time warp we’ve been stuck in since March, it may come as a surprise for some to learn that the 2020 election is just 102 days away—and Republicans have a lot of ground to make back up if they hope to hold much power in Washington once that time is up.   

At the top of the ticket, President Trump still trails Joe Biden by a wide margin, with the two candidates’ nearly nine-point gap in the RealClearPolitics polling average representing Biden’s biggest lead since he became the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. The news is equally grim for Trump when you zero in on the swing state numbers: New Fox News polls released yesterday show Biden up 11 points in Pennsylvania, 13 points in Minnesota, and nine points in Michigan. A new Quinnipiac poll has Biden up 13 in Florida. Even Rasmussen Reports—an outlier that tends to sample its polls in a manner far more favorable to the president than any other major pollster—has polls out this week showing Trump trailing Biden in Ohio and Pennsylvania by four and five points respectively.

There’s a lot of game left to be played, of course. One truism of the last few years has been that you can’t go wrong betting the media and, by extension, voters will have forgotten the latest explosive controversy by the time the next one rolls around.

But that was before a pandemic hit. Recently, the “just pivot to the next story” strategy hasn’t been working as well. Just look at the White House’s effort to fast-forward through the the pandemic to a triumphant American reemergence. The abrupt shift from bracing rhetoric about the virus to prematurely cheerful talk about the economic recovery and back again, the abortive efforts to resume rallies and hold an in-person party convention: All these speak to the difficulty of waving off as old news a pandemic that continues to insist on reinserting itself into the conversation.

To put it another way: Many of the material conditions informing the current polling regime may very well still be influencing voter behavior by the time of the election.

Okay—but what about the polls themselves? The 2016 election, in which the media consensus had Hillary Clinton as the heavy favorite, left many people ready to write off the discipline altogether.

But there’s reason to believe the “polls can’t be trusted” conventional wisdom is just as blinkered as the “polls show it’s a slam-dunk for Hillary” iteration was.

“In 2016, national polls were largely fine,” veteran GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson told The Dispatch. “They seemed ‘wrong’ mostly because we do not elect presidents by popular vote, so national polls showing Clinton up three or four points seemed ‘wrong’ even though they got the popular vote right well within margin of error. It was state polls in key ‘Blue Wall’ states that were off because they systematically missed education level and did not include enough voters without college degrees.”

Pollsters have been doing their best to digest the lessons of 2016. “But not all pollsters make it clear if they are or aren’t weighting by education level,” Anderson added, “so it can be hard for a layperson to know which polls do or don’t just by looking at the results.”

These sorts of caveats likely won’t make much of a difference if Biden’s national lead over Trump remains so cavernous. But if it shrinks, those swing-state polls will have to go under the microscope again.

“Just because polls were ‘wrong’ one direction last time around doesn’t mean that if they’re wrong it will be the same direction the next time,” Anderson said. “We can try as hard as we can, but there’s always a chance there’s something new lurking out there that will make 2020 off in an unexpected way.”

We’re Blushing

In an important and incisive column in today’s New York Times, David Brooks looks at the corrosive culture of intellectual exclusion and segregation in America. “For many on the right the purpose of thinking changed. Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging. Right-wing talk radio is the endless repetition off familiar mantras to reassure listeners that they are all on the same team. Thinking was for conquest: Those liberals think they’re better than us, but we own the libs.” On the left, many progressives are blindsided by reality, increasingly fragile and conformist. “Writers are now expected to write as a representative of a group, in order to affirm the self-esteem of the group. Predictability is the point.” Brooks points to Substack—the terrific platform we use to publish and distribute these newsletters—as part of a “a growing rebellion against groupthink and exclusion.” And he has some very generous words for the work of The Dispatch, too. (Thank you, David.)

Worth Your Time

  • Daniel Krauthammer—Charles’s son—explains why it matters to him that baseball is back in this essay for the Washington Post. “More than any other sport, baseball is youth, an exercise in memory,” Krauthammer quotes his father as saying. “It connects us to those whose love we felt so strongly when we first learned the game. His memories were with his brother. Mine are with him. He taught me to bat in our backyard. He was there at every Little League practice. And he took me to more Major League ballgames than I can recount.”

  • Thinkers and politicians on the right have had plenty to say about the left’s cancel culture tactics, but, as AEI’s Brent Orrell writes for The Bulwark, the right has a bit of a cancel culture problem as well. 

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In yesterday’s French Press (🔒), David urges conservative voters not to make Republican senators and representatives pay for the incompetence of their president. Republicans should be judged on their merits, he argues, and support for Trump alone should not disqualify them from holding public office—particularly as we stare down the possibility of a unified Democratic president, Senate, and House. “If you think it’s obvious what [Republican senators] should have done, how many readers have faced such a choice: take a tough stand and likely lose your life’s work or muddle through and hope to emerge on the other side with your dignity and conscience intact?”

  • This week, Republican members of the House Freedom Caucus launched a show of force against Rep. Liz Cheney, and criticized her for not being sufficiently loyal to the president. Our Dispatch Podcast hosts break down why this happened and what it means for the future of the GOP.

  • What’s the latest scoop on Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen? Our Advisory Opinions hosts have some answers. Yesterday’s episode also features David and Sarah discussing the alleged Trump stormtroopers in Portland and a defamation lawsuit against MSNBC commentator Joy Reid.

  • On the site, Danielle Pletka previews what Joe Biden’s foreign policy would look like and suggests that it might not actually be that different from Donald Trump’s.

Let Us Know

Have you been contacted by a pollster in the last few months? Did you a) answer and b) tell them the truth about your plans in November?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Nate Hochman (@njhochman), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos/Getty Images.