'Last Week Tonight': John Oliver Cautions Against Hasty Return of Sporting Events

John Oliver spent the main segment of Last Week Tonight lamenting the loss of professional and collegiate sports but cautioning against a hasty return of such events.

Citing a report that said $12 billion in revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs are being lost amid the pandemic, Oliver noted that it wasn't just the high-paid athletes who account for that, and that minimum-wage staff like stadium cooks and others are suffering without an income.

He then turned to the broadcasting world, noting that sports networks are showing years-old games or athletes at home playing video games, and a video of a Russian slapping competition has been making the rounds on social media.

"If we are all reaching the point of desperation, where we're honestly willing to watch large men slap each other in a windowless room, there is clearly a desire to restart sporting events. The question, though, isn't why sports should come back but how that can safely happen," Oliver said.

He noted that the state of Florida decided early on that professional sports and media production with a national audience were essential, as long as the public was unable to attend. That led to the WWE, rival AEW and the UFC to proceed with fights. 

However, an anonymous WWE staffer complained that there was no way the production crew could maintain social distancing and not touch other crewmembers. And a UFC fighter and two of his cornerman recently tested positive, "underscoring the fact that if you want to come back completely without risk, that's just not possible right now," Oliver said. "And yet many sports organizations are feeling real pressure to ignore that risk," including sports college programs, where football programs pull in a lot of revenue.

Oliver played an audio clip of Oklahoma State University head football coach Mike Gundy arguing that players should be allowed to play. "Young, healthy students can fight this off with their natural body. … We need to continue to budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma."

Said Oliver: "Jesus Christ, I don't know whose medical advice is worth the least in the middle of a pandemic, but 'Guy who doesn't mind unpaid college kids contracting a potentially deadly disease so everyone else can make millions' is right down near the bottom, along with funeral parlor magnate and the coronavirus wearing a fake mustache." (As Oliver noted, Gundy later apologized.)

Oliver then turned to professional sports, focusing on Major League Baseball, which at first said it would stage all games in Arizona and put players in hotel rooms. But, as Oliver noted, "the complication is that it wouldn't be isolating just players." In addition, coaching staff, team physicians, umpires, camera crews and many more people working behind the scenes would need to be isolated and frequently tested. He cited a report saying that such a scenario would require around 10,000 people to be isolated, all of whom would need to be constantly tested.

"I will own the fact that I really want sports to come back," Oliver said. "There is no doubt that they have the ability to inspire. One of the things sport does best is bring people together in times of crisis, like when the Yankees resumed playing after 9/11. Unfortunately, though, bringing people together is the exact thing we should not be doing right now. … If it comes back too soon and irresponsibly, it won't be an inspiration, it'll be a cautionary tale."

His advice: Phase sports back in slowly, wIth "tailored approaches that take into account each sport's level of contact" and incorporate "robust systems of testing and tracing."

Oliver ended his show by noting his new obsession with something called Jelle's Marble Runs. The Netherlands-based marble competition had let it be known that it was in need of a sponsor for its upcoming tournament; Last Week Tonight stepped in and is now the sole sponsor of the upcoming 16-event tournament, and the winner of each event will see $5,000 donated to a food bank in their name, courtesy of the HBO show.