Has it really been more than three months since sports were shuttered? It certainly feels far longer than that—like a hazy, half-remembered dream or remnant of a forgotten era. I shudder to think that athletes and fans like me might be asked to wait even longer, with no clear timeframe when the games will return. It seems impossibly cruel. Of course, the only thing that would prove crueler still is trying to get the whole kit and caboodle cranked up again in the middle of a pandemic that never really went away. There is one way to pull it off, though: putting a hatpin through our collective cerebral cortex, pretending as if the problem has been solved or doesn’t exist, and soldiering on, COVID-19 be damned.
Whether erecting a semi-permeable bubble, like the NBA, WNBA and Major League Soccer, or launching a shortened 60-game Major League Baseball season spread across the country, the hasty resumption of sports represent the apex of a particularly American brand of denialism. In lieu of a functional federal and local government capable of putting in the work and sacrifice required to stop COVID-19’s spread, something resembling normal life must be resurrected as soon as possible, because there are gobs of cash at stake, and a deeply bored viewing audience is clamoring for something new to watch on TV. And this willing suspension of disbelief will inevitably cause the most harm to those least equipped to bear it.
One problem, though: Reality is starting to poke its head out of the sand, putting the lie to the hope that sports would triumphantly come storming back to life free from further interruptions. Five MLB teams have had players test positive, causing MLB to put an end to spring training in Florida and Arizona. Dozens of college athletes from Clemson, Florida, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas State, LSU, Texas, Wisconsin, and many more colleges and universities contracted COVID-19 after participating in voluntary workouts. These cases came, mind you, without the entire student body present as a possible infection vector.
After days spent going about as if the pandemic didn’t exist, Novak Djokovic, the No 1-ranked tennis player in the world, anti-vaxxer and dubious wellness pitchman, tested positive. So did a slew of other players and coaches participating in the tournament, regardless of whether they shared Djokovic’s penchant for crackpot theories. High school-aged athletes haven’t proved immune, either, nor have NFL stars, hockey phenoms, and pro golfers.
As The Daily Beast reported, in Florida, where multiple pro leagues plan to hunker down, the situation on the ground is worsening by the day. Per state officials, 2,783 new cases and 55 additional deaths were amassed on Tuesday, breaking the previous record. Governor Ron DeSantis, who opened the state well before the recommended Federal guidelines said it was safe to do so, has resisted any calls to impose a new stay-at-home order. Over the weekend, he promised to crack down on bars where social distancing measures were not enforced. The following day, 10 players and staffers from the NWSL’s Orlando Pride tested positive, forcing the team to withdraw from a tournament scheduled to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah. In a note of grim irony, their attempt to remain self-isolated proved ineffective when a handful of players ventured out to sample the Florida nightlife.
For months, epidemiologists have warned that extensive measures would need to be taken and hallmarks met in order for sports to return safely. (In other countries, where the pandemic is under a great deal more control, fan-free games have returned.) At least some NBA players are beginning to ask whether their health is being prioritized, per an ESPN report. An unnamed NBA executive told NBC Sports’s Tom Haberstroh that the biodome the league hoped to erect wouldn’t serve as a virus-proof shield. Instead, “This is a mesh hat,” the executive said, with older coaches and staffers facing the highest risks. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist from Emory University who has written extensively about the potential pitfalls all sports leagues face should they try to jumpstart their seasons, is deeply worried about the possibility of an even sharper spike in the state of Florida, one that the NBA won’t be able to wall off. “I'm afraid it's all about to go pear-shaped anyway," he said.
That, apparently, will be the cost of doing business. When positive tests are made public, fans and the players themselves will just have to deal with it and keep grinding forward.
“You can either panic and not keep playing games or send people home that are sick and keep playing,” Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta said on Tuesday. “And that’s what we’re going to see—what’s going to happen.”
Leaving aside exactly who Fertitta, a billionaire Trump backer with a penchant for squeezing every last available dollar from his customers and occasionally screwing over labor, meant by “we,” he’s not wrong.
Despite outlining extensive testing protocols and safety requirements for those ensconced in Disney World, there are no publicly stated benchmarks which, if met, would put a halt to the rebooted NBA season. College football also seems determined to sally forth, consequences be damned. As Binney noted, if some of the wealthiest NCAA schools can’t keep players safe, non-powerhouse institutions of higher learning are in serious trouble, as is the entire notion of football in autumn.
Prior to entry, approximately 770 NBA athletes, staffers, and front office employees and up to 1,600 total individuals will need to be tested for the novel coronavirus. In what should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, “significant numbers of positive tests” will arrive the days to come, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Even less surprising is how Wojnarowski expanded on this bit of information. The 16 NBA teams which had already qualified for the playoffs had less to be concerned about than the remaining six. You see, any “key players” who contract a viral illness that has already killed upwards of 120,000 Americans and 476,000 people worldwide now would still have plenty of time to recuperate and return to peak physical conditioning by mid August, when the postseason begins. “All [teams] are worried about soft-tissue injuries,” he added on Twitter.
A few minutes later, and perhaps realizing that he’d suggested putting people’s lives at risk was a lesser concern than were of a secondary concern to playoff seeding, Wojnarowski tweeted: “All of this, of course, is hoping that those players testing positive experience little, if no, symptoms. While statistics are on the side of healthy, young NBA players not becoming seriously ill because of the coronavirus, there are no guarantees.”
Wojnarowski isn’t the only sports yakker who has furrowed his brow and speculated about the possible market inefficiencies which could be exploited during an ongoing global pandemic.
It’s easy to see Wojnarowski’s and Breen’s framing as callous and shortsighted, because it is. Best-case scenario, they’re unaware of the long-term health impacts for those who recover, or the growing group of individuals who still are dealing with harrowing symptoms after three months of a “mild” case.” But their analysis of what is to be valued slots in snugly with the best-laid plans of pro and amateur leagues, alike, which are using the same blinkered calculus, and effectively refuting NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s promise that “the data and not the date” would dictate the league’s behavior. .
Don’t get it twisted. I’m a deranged sports fan who’d hack off a decent chunk of my own flesh if it meant being able to bask in the glory of a dreary Mets-Rockies mid-week tilt right now. But this country hasn’t put in the goddamn work that was required. A preventative measure as uncontroversial as wearing masks has long since been reduced to dumb culture-war fodder, to say nothing of the failure to build out the required testing capacity or provide for the millions who’ve lost their jobs and accompanying health coverage. When K-12 students are unsure when they’ll be back in classrooms, and with even less surety as to when or if a vaccine will arrive, sports can wait. Sports has to wait.
And for those who think it's silly to fret about the injustices fobbed on an extremely wealthy labor class by their even far wealthier employers and broadcast partners, just wait until your boss decides it's time for you to come back to the office, or restaurant, or take your place behind a retail counter. Said boss’s imprimatur won’t be cloaked in nostalgic language about the poetry of the game or honking elegies to America’s national pastime, to be sure. But by hook or by crook, they’ll ape the very same arguments about incipient financial losses and the need for extensive austerity policies, while doing their level best to break your union. That day is coming, too, and sooner than you might think.