Let’s be honest and unequivocal. At the time of writing, there is ABSOLUTELY no reason any professional sports should be played in the United States of America. If you explore the undercurrents of how the power holders in the sports world are responding to the coronavirus, there is a lot to be learned about America as a whole.
As I write, 140 thousand people have died in six months. For the second time, the testing process- the linchpin of getting control of the virus- has nearly ground to a halt. Emergency workers plead for PPE. The CDC estimates that for every person who tests positive for COVID-19, there may be ten other people spreading the virus around the country.
The debate over masks rages on as we try to decide whether we can force our children back into school. Forcing children back to school is, debatably, the worst idea in the world.
This week Dr. Anthony Fauci threw the first pitch of a truncated baseball season. Basketball begins in less than 2 weeks and the crown jewel, the National Football League, plans to continue on with a full season. From a logistical perspective, it would seem that staging these humongous events would be impossible. But no, the show must go on.
Or, in more realistic terms, somebody’s gotta get paid.
In the big three of baseball, football, and basketball, 2776 players will begin to play either full or abbreviated seasons, played in 62 different stadiums or arenas around the country. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the lack of fans at the games. I personally have no desire to attend a public event with ten thousand people. More importantly, I have no desire to go to a public event with someone who would.
We have not even mentioned the innumerable support staff that are required to make sure this experiment goes well. But take a moment to think it through with me: how safe can we keep the bus driver, who transports the parking attendant, who is exposed to the asymptomatic team staff that has traveled to three different cities in the last three weeks? How do you keep him safe?
You hear an argument that sports are an irrevocable part of the American psyche. That we are all diminished if there are no national pastimes. I will let the numbers speak for themselves. The National Football League alone generated $8.1B in revenue. The three national networks paid $3B more for broadcast rights to air the games once a week. To break it down even further, FOX makes forty percent of its advertising revenue for the year during those games. These young men and women seem to have been shoehorned into the category of essential workers- very well-paid essential workers, but essential nonetheless. Essential to someone.
Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
Sports have always been on the leading edge of forward political thought in American culture. Joe Louis was the one of the first antifa. After beating German Max Schmeling in 1938, he was rechristened “The Bronze Bomber”– it had a better ring to it than his prior nickname, “The Black Menace.”
John Carlos and Tommie Smith are remembered as heroes for saluting black power at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. They were banned from the Olympics. Muhammad Ali is thought of as the only American saint after refusing to register for the Vietnam draft. He was denied the right to fight for four years of his prime. Sports has a long history of being one of the venues where when politics invade, we see the best of ourselves.
We now embark on this great experiment in the times when Black Lives Matter. The world looks to some of our most famous Americans to see how they will respond to a new era and its new thoughts. Almost universally, the international soccer community has responded in strong solidarity with the BLM movement. Lewis Hamilton, a black race car driver in the richest racing series in the world, has taken an almost adversarial tone in his full-throated support for the movement. That he is thought of as the best driver in the world makes his platform very comfortable, but he uses it to push his point as far as possible.
The power structures of the American sports universe have tried to line up on the right side of history. Players’ name labels have become a space for “acceptable” messages of protest and support. Black Lives Matter has been painted on the courts. The NFL will play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the beginning of the first game of the season- a ham-handed effort that could go wrong in a million different ways, but at least somebody tried.
The most famous American athletes of our times have been painfully careful not to delve into the political realm. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan are both notorious for staying above the political fray, sacrificing some of their credibility in the black community in the process. Lebron James, the most famous basketball player in the world, has given mixed signals about his true opinions on the demonstrations. There’s something to be said about what’s to lose in the present day sports world, and I’m sure that’s lost on no one.
All these things have to weigh heavily on these young people’s heads. It’s a crazy experiment they are about to undertake, and for questionable reasons. I’ll unapologetically root for my favorite teams and have my fingers crossed for all involved. I agree with the idea that you can learn a lot about America by the way we play and watch sports.
I just don’t want to end up knowing too much.