Living in this country during the COVID-19 pandemic is an obviously surreal experience. A case in point is the mad, profit-driven rush to resume professional sports, and what it might mean both for players, and for encouraging dangerous social gatherings among fans.
Major League Baseball began playing late in July, the NBA and WNBA have resumed competitive play with a limited number of teams, and the NFL will soon follow. This resumption of professional sports for TV audiences occurs as the pandemic rages across this country, and after 155,000 Americans have already died. In a dire warning issued on July 29th, David Skorton, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, warned that if Americans do not take the pandemic seriously and change course, the US "may see multiple hundreds of thousands of deaths."
The reemergence of professional sports leagues during this pandemic is irresponsible and a mistake — and in the MLB it has already resulted in over two dozen positive cases and some delayed games. For the players and staff, the resumption of play entails ignoring the CDC guidelines requiring social distancing, the frequent washing of hands, and most importantly the wearing of masks. With a runner on first, how close will the first basemen be to the runner, or the umpire, or the line coach or any other positions or personnel on the field? Very Close. And of course, league play requires air travel, ground transportation, communal eating, and meetings all of which involve close contact with teammates and staff.
The health risks to millionaire professional athletes is a minor consideration when compared to the disastrous impact they will have on the behavior of the American people. The resumption of play is sending a mixed signal to sports fans and the public generally. There is already widespread skepticism among the public that social distancing and the other preventative measures are not necessary or important. The narrative that if you are not already older and sick, contracting COVID-19 is no worse than the seasonal flu.
This perspective can be placed squarely at the door of the White House. President Trump and his administration have downplayed the severity of the pandemic and the toll it is taking, and it's hard not to see the restart of professional sports without the influence of Trumpism propelling it forward.
Watching professional sports on television is the number-one indoor recreational activity for men in this country, and most middle-class fans cannot afford the astronomical cost of tickets to live games. Sports fans and their families are inevitably going to contribute to an acceleration of community spread of the virus since live sports programming promotes social gatherings. These informal get-togethers often involve alcohol consumption, eating, and a physical closeness born of camaraderie. If there is a game on, fans will continue to huddle in their living rooms and man caves. And just because sports bars are closed doesn’t mean that friends won’t find somewhere else to get together.
Oakland has for two months been experiencing a rapid surge in COVID-19 infections. The city now represents 40% of all the cases in Alameda County and within Oakland, 69% of the infections are occurring among East Oakland residents. County health officials have placed the blame squarely on private parties mostly in residences and social gatherings in public places most notably weekends at Lake Merritt in Oakland. In Oakland, 51% of the victims are Black and 38% Latinx. Professional sports are big throughout Oakland. One reason that team sports are so popular is that their broadcasts represent an enjoyable and inexpensive way to entertain family and friends at home.
How much thought did the owners put into reopening? Did these professional sports franchises consider the indirect threat to the public that their resumption of operations poses during a pandemic with 500k+ cases thus far in California? Did the teams consult with behavioral scientists, sociologists, and the medical community to assess how the resumption of play will impact the behavior of millions of Americans during a pandemic? The owners must know that their games are an attraction and a reason to gather. The advertisers without doubt know what the ratings are. When fans become infected, they could contribute to a shift in the demographics of the pandemic. Already as of July, half of all new infections reported in California were in younger patients, people in their 20s and 30s. This coincides with the demographics of sports viewership.
The media, especially broadcast and cable news has played an important role in informing Americans about the facts — how this pandemic spreads, and what can be done to protect ourselves and our families. Remarkably, the efficacy of resuming professional sports has not been consistently challenged or debated. Broadcasters pay for their sports departments and reporters. The reporting of league play, the teams, and the players, represent a substantial amount of their content and an important revenue stream. I haven’t seen any on-air guests observe that sports broadcasting encourages informal congregation of sports fans which will lead to increased community spread of the virus. There just hasn’t been a discussion of the negative consequences that these events will have on drawing fans together. The focus of coverage is almost exclusively on the health of the players and the economic welfare of the leagues.
In a rare miscalculation, a leading figure in the federal government pandemic response, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIAID, tossed out the first ball on opening day. In doing so, he affirmed that the pandemic takes a second seat to our national pastime. I find it perplexing that Dr. Fauci, who has called out the refusal of many Americans to wear masks and abide by the CDC guidelines, would send this mixed message.
The decision by billionaire team owners to resume play has undoubtedly influenced the actions of the NCAA. Other than the Ivy League, which has postponed all intercollegiate sports until 2021, the NCAA appears prepared to resume collegiate sports. None of the other 32 divisions which make up the NCAA have announced the postponement of their seasons. How do student-athletes or the scores of students and staff working behind the scenes benefit or remain safe?
This is indeed a Twilight Zone situation. After assessing the risk of infection, schools across this country are foregoing in-class instruction and instituting remote learning. If it’s not safe for the student to go to history class, how can it be safe to play football, soccer, basketball, or any other contact sport?
Professional sports teams tout the safety measures they have taken, including the daily testing of athletes and staff. How many college sports programs have the resources available to keep their players and staff safe?
The last time this country was in a crisis as severe as this was World War II. The war effort required the mobilization of the American People. All were united in the struggle to defeat a common foe. At that time, t was a foregone conclusion, that it was no longer business as usual and there would be no professional sports until victory was achieved. Has this lesson been unlearned? Tragically, more Americans have now fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic then were killed during World War I, and the battlefield total for American soldiers in WWII, 235,000, is not far out of reach in the ultimate coronavirus toll. In fact, it's possible we will have passed that total in just a couple of months.
If we are to beat this virus and resume professional league play with fans in the stands, it won't be because of Trumpian magical thinking.
The American people must follow rules for the time being. And only after that we can responsibly play ball.
Elliott Jones is a community organizer, public speaker, & philanthropist. Originally from Oakland, he has been working to help forge cultural understanding as an advocate and activist from California to Florida and every between. He is the founder of the public interest organization Ensure Progress and is also the grandson of the legendary Dr. Maya Angelou. Elliott contributes thoughts to SFist about progress in the Bay Area.