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The pandemic has made most things impossible. Sports are not immune.
Last Thursday, Major League Baseball launched its much-delayed, pandemic-shortened 2020 season. By Monday morning, we had news that over a dozen Miami Marlins players and coaches—who had just played a three-game series in Philadelphia against the Phillies—had tested positive for coronavirus.
Here is the insane response from the MLB to over a dozen workers testing positive for coronavirus after one weekend of play:
On Tuesday, things got even worse:
Also on Monday, we learned that Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, an otherwise healthy 27-year-old professional athlete, is now dealing with a heart condition because of his battle with COVID-19.
If the MLB cared at all about its players, let alone the generally older coaches and team staff traveling with them, the choice would be easy: End the season now and cut your losses.
Instead, the league chose to cancel the games in Philadelphia and Miami on Monday and Tuesday, and then…well, that seems to be it, as of right now.
But it’s not just baseball, either. A month and a half before the scheduled start of the NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings’ “infection control officer” tested positive for coronavirus, as did other members of his family. On Monday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell officially announced the cancellation of the preseason in an open letter to fans.
The WNBA’s season started on Sunday; the league blocked Elena Delle Donne, one of its biggest stars, from receiving a medical exemption from playing despite her well-known battle with the complications of Lyme disease. (Delle Donne’s team, the Washington Mystics, eventually agreed to pay her without making her play.) This week, the NBA will resume its pandemic-shortened 2019-2020 season in an actual bubble at Disney World, despite the worries of players who selfishly don’t want to live the rest of their lives with lung and heart conditions. And the NHL starts later this week, too, in a similar “bubble” environment in Toronto.
No one can attend any of the games and stadium/arena staff have all been laid off. So why are these games still happening? Simple: so the owners and leagues can still score the playoff revenue that comes from TV mega-contracts. Without the playoffs, the NBA would lose nearly a billion dollars in TV revenue from this season. The MLB is looking at a similar number.
But the decisions owners and leagues make in the interest of collecting their usual checks have a ripple effect on the rest of the culture. Anecdotally, something I’ve heard a lot from friends and acquaintances here in North Carolina is that they first realized the seriousness of the virus when the NCAA canceled March Madness. What little we have in the way of evidence backs this up: a poll in April by an online sports ticketing website found that 84 percent of sports fans said “they started taking the virus more seriously” after leagues began to suspend and cancel games in March.
It’s not far-fetched to say the immediate action leagues took to shut down then helped encourage people all over the country to take this seriously, at least until their dumbfuck governors began reopening everything at the encouragement of their dumbfuck president.
The choices that sports leagues make don’t just influence how the public views the crisis; they’re also a reflection of capital’s approach to labor during the current moment. The decision of team owners to risk the health and safety of their players is fundamentally the same calculation that meatpacking companies and other “essential employers” have made: there’s too much money to be lost by shutting down the shop until it’s been made safer. There is a reason, for example, why the major leagues are back and the minor leagues are not.
We already have a plethora of grifters — from American presidents to failed New York Times reporters and the not-New York Times bestselling authors who parrot their bullshit — who are trying to push this narrative that things will be OK if we just get back to normal. Just gotta suck it up and get back to normal, they say, even though nearly 150,000 people have died in America, cases are increasing in 32 states, and we could be a year out or more from finding a vaccine that kills the virus without killing you.
People see sports starting back up again, and start to wonder why they can’t send their kids back to school or go into the workplace (if they haven’t been forced to already) or see their extended families or travel on airplanes and go on cruises for vacation or go to the movies or go to their favorite dive bar for a couple of drinks on the weekend.
These are all very natural things to miss and want to do. I want to do all of these things too. Desperately so! But we are not living in normal times, and it’s OK to accept that. The fact that things are not normal is not an attack on freedom or our way of life. It just is what it is.
This next year or more is going to be a weird time, and it has to be a weird time because no one is sure of anything and human life and health and dignity matters more than labor production and consumer buying power. And if sports can help convince people that we still need to take this seriously, then that’s just an additional reason to cancel them beyond securing the health and safety of players, coaches, and staff.
Good sports blogs, on the other hand? Bring them on.
Update, 3:58 p.m. ET: This blog has been updated with more information about Elena Delle Donne’s professional circumstances. In addition, this blog initially said that the WNBA season was “starting soon.” In fact, the season started over the weekend.
Photo: Opening Day 2017 in Baltimore. Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons