4th and a Mile with Paul Muth

Coronavirus has officially changed the game

Expect a lot of empty stadiums in the coming months. Photo by Paul Muth.

Here's what we know from the major sports leagues so far (UPDATED 3-13-2020)

  • NBA: Season suspended indefinitely.
  • NCAA: Tournaments have been cancelled.
  • NHL: Season suspended indefinitely.
  • NFL: Not currently affected. Draft still scheduled to go on in public as planned.
  • XFL: Season has been cancelled
  • MLB: Season suspended for 2 weeks, spring training suspended immediately
For a more detailed list, click here.

Why it matters

It may seem weird for people to be so up in arms over sports being cancelled, but it shouldn't. For most, sports are seen as a constant. A lot of memories are attributed to "the year x team won the championship." Personally, I found a sense of comfort in streaming the Astros games from my zip-locked phone, tucked away in the chest pocket of my waders as my friend and I did welfare checks through neighborhoods in waist-deep water after Harvey. It was a semblance of normalcy during a week that was anything but. Now, we're beginning to lose even that.

It's also about community. It's about the legions of disjointed Astros fans anticipating opening day so they can finally be together after an off season where outsiders were hell-bent on ripping them apart. It's about taking nephews to the last basketball game of the season, or meeting up with pops to show him what that "newfangled XFL league" is all about. It's El Batalion and Texian Army. It's Red Rowdies.

Sports has always served a purpose beyond merely spectating athletic ability. We may now discover to what extent.

Moving forward

The NBA cancelling their season was just the first North American domino to fall. Expect other leagues to take similar precautions, either by locking fans out or cancelling the season entirely as early as today. I expect my Roughnecks season tickets to be affected, and I expect Astros opening day to be affected. If it doesn't happen, OK. I'll happily admit that I'm wrong, because I very much would like to go to these events. But in the event that I'm right, and no one is allowed to these events, there are alternatives.

Provided you are healthy, and exercise caution, go watch it at your neighborhood bar. The service industry is very likely about to take a beating and those ladies and gentlemen have taken care of all of us at one point or another beyond what we deserved. This is one of the few times you can chalk up throwing back a few cold ones with the boys as a legitimate community service.

The games are going to feel weird. It's hard to imagine a WrestleMania in a potentially empty stadium or a Tomahawk dunk reverberating like a solid putt to set up a birdie. It's an alien reality that never seemed truly plausible, but here we are. We may not have caused it, but collectively we're the only ones who can get everyone through it. And while sports may take a backseat to everything that is unfolding, they still matter for reasons beyond box scores.

Don't panic, but don't downplay

It's hard to find the right tone about something like this.

On the one hand, it's not productive to be an alarmist and shout from the rooftops that the sky is falling. Besides, there are plenty of other outlets that are more than happy to accommodate.

But on the other hand, it's foolish to downplay it's effects. As we speak, the economy is shuddering, the NBA is shuttering, and sports leagues across the country are no-doubt taking subsequent queues. Yet in spite of the physical evidence in front of us, we have people continuing to downplay the seriousness, claiming that coronavirus is simply another SARS or Ebola scare.

It's not.

Let's get two things straight:

  1. There is currently no vaccine.
  2. There are not enough testing kits available to identify and track it.

This is why things are shutting down. It's not because everyone will die. In fact most wont. If you're a thirty-something like me and in generally good health, it will probably just knock you for a loop for a few days and you'll be right back at it.

But it's not about you. It's about your grandma you go hug. It's about someone else's grandma using the same ATM as someone who was infected but didn't know. It's the unknowing.

If you don't agree with the measures being taken, that's fine. They might seem insane to some, but what is equally insane is telling everyone that it is being blown out of proportion, that it's just hysteria about nothing, or that it's some conspiracy. Preaching caution to a thing that might be overblown will simply result in over-preparedness. Downplaying and convincing people to let down their guard over a thing that could potentially be 10 times as fatal as influenza can have more dire consequences.

We're in uncharted territory. So if you're not qualified to read the map, please don't give out directions.

NOTE: The beginning of the article has been updated to accurately reflect the current state of the leagues mentioned

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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