The NBA, NHL, and MLB all found a way to play out their seasons in the midst of COVID-19. But not everyone thinks a championship in 2020 counts for as much.

Dina Litovsky / The New York Times

The NBA, NHL, and MLB all found a way to play out their seasons in the midst of COVID-19. But not everyone thinks a championship in 2020 counts for as much.

September 27, 2020

BULKELEY | Do We Care About Winning a ‘COVID Cup’?

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In March, professional sports leagues were shut down. Once the initial dust settled and commissioners began discussing their plans to re-start their respective leagues’ seasons, one question remained that had no definitive answer: Does a 2020 championship win mean as much?

So-called asterisk wins have been a major topic in sports over the last year — for the rest of time, the record books will need to remind people that certain stats or championships are associated with some baggage. The 1919 Reds after their opponents threw the World Series, the 2017 Astros for illegal sign stealing, and the like are teams whose titles have been tarnished as more information came to light after the final game was played. But this year, we are going into the championships for the NBA, MLB and NHL already knowing that people in the future might not lend as much weight to a 2020 title.

For the NHL and NBA, teams were already entering the home stretch when they got shut down. The postseason picture, while not set, was getting there. Most people would agree that the teams that were in the NBA and NHL bubbles once play resumed in July and August deserved a spot there. And yet, criticism regarding the validity of playoff outcomes has rained down. When the Boston Bruins, who had the best record of any NHL team leading up to COVID-19, ended up with a No. 4 seed because of a dismal performance in the round robin that determined seeding for elimination games, some people claimed this as evidence that the 2020 playoffs were doomed to be unrepresentative of the season that had led up to it.

But doesn’t this happen every year? While perhaps the long break in play highlighted how the playoffs are a crapshoot, the fact remains that they have always been this way. Upsets are nothing new when it comes to big games, and losing cannot be entirely explained away by COVID-19. While it’s not worth going into every individual challenge teams and athletes faced because of the break in play and the sometimes-trying bubble experience, they did exist, and I am not discounting that (looking at Tuukka Rask). But I also have been paying attention for long enough to know that the outcomes we expect in the playoffs are very frequently not the outcomes we actually get. This is an uncertainty that one must accept, to some degree, in order to enjoy the playoffs — and that’s the way it always has been.

Those condemning the validity of the 2020 MLB season might have a better case to make. Transforming a 162-game season into one of just 60 compromises the integrity of the postseason and ensuing World Series to a much greater degree than just mandating that all teams take a few months off and shortening the season by several games. For the NBA and NHL, the entire season was played without the knowledge that anything would be different come time for the playoffs, so there is no questioning the legitimacy of the regular season. But for MLB, a league that found out the season would be delayed during the preseason, the entire year has arguably been tainted by COVID-19.

In a game partial to luck on a day-to-day basis — more so than other sports — cutting the season by more than half is guaranteed to totally alter the outcome of the regular season. Multiple teams are primed to enter the postseason either below or just barely skirting above .500. The expanded playoff picture (each league is sending eight teams to October instead of five like usual) means that the Miami Marlins are going to the postseason, and not as a Wildcard team. And so are the San Diego Padres! I am not bashing the underdog, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that we would not have so many unexpected contenders if 162 games were played.

But in the end, it’s all pretty much a moot point. COVID-19 exists, it messed up sports for the year and that can’t be changed. We still get to see them (on the TV) and the commissioners each salvaged the seasons in some way or another — whether you agreed with exactly how leadership handled things is an entirely different discussion. The fact of the matter is that some number of games got played after that March shutdown, and at least that’s better than nothing.

Will the hardware that championship teams bring home matter? Well, yes. After all, they still beat out everyone else to earn it. Will it matter in a different way than in a normal year? Maybe. But the teams who win this year overcame a totally new set of challenges by playing in a pandemic, so that counts for something.