Wednesday, July 22, 2020

How should we view the return of sports during the Coronavirus pandemic?

Four months ago, when the shock of almost all sports globally being shut down still very fresh, I wrote that "we didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone, but even through the dark times without them, I can't wait to see what life is like with them again." It was a positive, hopeful thought in a time where there was far more uncertainty and fear than hope.

On the eve baseball, basketball and hockey returning to play, my comment about not being able to wait to see what life is like with sports again seems hollow. The pandemic that shut down sports is in many ways even worse than it was when they were shut down in March, particularly in this country. Famous athletes, like everyone else, have contracted COVID-19 and in many cases were hit very hard by it. There are testing shortages across the country for those who need it the most, and delays for those lucky enough to get their tests, and yet leagues have been able to accumulate tests, use them daily and get almost instant results. 

Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals put it pretty bluntly:
So what are we to make of sports returning to our lives when so much is still not normal, and might not be for some time yet?

Sean Doolittle among others have asked an important question: should sports be returning with the virus still very much out of control? When there are distinct ethical questions about whether sports leagues should take up the testing capacity needed for essential workers and the general population, society isn't functioning as it should. There is the real risk that when some athletes catch COVID-19, they may suffer long lasting and permanent damage, not just to living a healthy life but keeping their high standards as a professional athlete, and hundreds of athletes have already caught the virus in the course of living normal life during the pandemic. Some have pre-existing conditions that make contracting the virus even more concerning, and many have opted out of playing. Should they even be asked to put themselves on the line in circumstances like this, healthy or not?

However, thanks to the money on the line, some leagues have gone to great extents to restart play even when the outside world isn't conducive to it. MLS, NWSL, the NBA, WNBA and NHL have all constructed bubbles to keep players insulated from potential infection, and the early returns are somewhat positive. NWSL has had no positive tests inside their bubble, though Orlando Pride had to withdraw before the tournament because of positives they picked up at home, and though two teams had to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament because of the number of positive tests, the league has had five straight reports of no positive tests inside the bubble as of July 22. The NBA's bubble is also off to a good start with no players testing positive during their first week. Ethics about testing aside, the bubbles seem to be a cohesive strategy that gets play resumed and keeps players and staff safe, and one with the least amount of concern for the public at large.

But not every league can operate in a bubble. Are the ethical and moral concerns greater for MLB, who will be traveling from city to city, though playing in empty stadiums? Are they greater for the NFL, who will be doing the same, though with more players to test, no preseason and highly limited capacity for fans in stadiums if that? And what of college football and college sports in general, whose scatterbrain, scattershot philosophy on play has left conferences on their own, lost in the dark looking for direction that isn't coming? These leagues and sports have had immense trouble just agreeing on testing protocols, let alone what return to play functionally looks like. Should college athletes, amateurs according to the NCAA, be even forced to play in a situation like this when large events are almost entirely banned and they don't have the same control over their own destiny as pro athletes in unions have?

Even with the large ethical, moral and health questions looming over sports' return, plenty of sports fans are eager to have them back. 78% of self-claimed sports fans are excited about their return in spite of the raging pandemic, which is up from 65% in April. Many seem perfectly content with the idea of bubbles, and playing in empty stadiums if it means sports returning. Plenty will watch in spite of the concerns, and will be happy to have them back even if they themselves may have moral quandaries about it. Sports have an outsized role in American culture, and people are craving some sort of normalcy which is a distant memory even four months after the pandemic began to rage. Perhaps sports are the perfect place to scratch that itch, since going to concerts, museums, plays, movies are still not possible.

For all that is concerning about the return of sports in America, there is so much that they have done in this unique and challenging moment in American history. They have brought even more attention to the systemic racism that has plagued this nation, with powerful symbols of support and solidarity. Athletes have been using their platform more than ever to speak out, which is more needed than ever. None of these leagues returned to play to solely make statements of solidarity, but their return has brought us indelible moments that will stay in memory forever, and that's before baseball, football and basketball have brought their voices to the discussion.

It's amazing that the actual play feels tertiary to these discussions, if that. How can anyone reasonably predict a 60 game MLB season with perhaps 16 playoff teams? There are certainly teams that will shine in the NBA and NHL bubbles, but these will be postseasons like no other. What can anyone glean from MLS is Back for a possible regular season resumption after it ends? Perhaps it's the wild unpredictability that adds to the eagerness for sports to return, even with everything else surrounding it.

How should we view the return of sports in the US? It's certainly not business as usual, and these leagues, teams and players have had to walk an extremely fine line just to consider returning. Perhaps the best phrase to use in this case would be "your mileage may vary". Many have internalized the moral and ethical concerns about the return of sports and while they are there, they're happy to have them back while they're there. It's fair to ask question of these leagues and their plans, it's certainly fair to ask whether American society has "earned" sports' return, and if you don't like the answers, you have every right to be nervous and worried.

For many, the return of sports is a sign of hope that better days are coming. Many know that nothing is normal right now, and won't be for a while, but they want that crumb of comfort, and a glimmer of light.

We can at least be happy that light is back, even if it's dimmer than usual.