In 2020, everyone wrote their analyzes on COVID-19 and sport. But the truth is, we were flying blind.
No one in charge of the multi-billion dollar global sports world knew what to do. They gave us hermetically sealed “bubbles” and empty stadiums; tons of reprogramming and breathless updates if a player was even near someone who tested positive. Basically, once the games restarted in July 2020, with no fans in the stands, it was an exercise in making lucrative TV broadcast deals and praying for the best.
Maybe we need to take an honest look at the mutations and the lack of protections and shut it all down.
In 2021, we had a decidedly different story. First of all, after the development of vaccines, the world of sports opened its doors to fans. The Summer Olympics, after a year of delay, have prepared for Tokyo. They all acted as if having a vaccine would crush any worry that we were rushing headlong into a burning building.
Now, even as we see groundbreaking cases, mutations that act faster than the vaccine due to global vaccine inequality, and part of the population refusing to do their part to curb the virus, the sports world remains attached to the idea of normality. He acts as if he can bump into this idea of “business as usual” with optimism, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The NBA not only hosted a packed NBA Finals, it also celebrated the Milwaukee fans who gathered in their tens of thousands outside the Bucks arena in close contact to watch the game on a Big screen. The Olympics were in full swing in Tokyo, a very concentrated city with a very low vaccination rate. Despite all efforts to keep the tens of thousands of visitors in containment, the results were predictable: an increase in the number of new cases.
In the NFL, if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in a team, there will be no rescheduling. Instead, a team will be assigned a loss and each player on the team will lose game control. If this happens more than once or twice, the entire legitimacy of the season will be in question.
Then there is college football. We saw young college students, to the delight of NCAA broadcast partners, gather 100,000 people, happily oblivious to their role in sustaining life and spreading the virus.
I get it: sports are the closest thing to a uniform community activity that many of us have in this country. It is our collective space and, more and more, our public place. In a country torn apart by manufactured divisions of every imaginable type, the playground is where people can come together.
This is especially true when we look at local, youth and high school sports. As a youth basketball coach myself, I work with students who have both been in poor physical condition since the last year of distance learning and also young people so grateful to be in the classroom. ‘outside; they don’t even worry about having to train with masks.
Athletes and fans alike seem to be gobbling up the opportunity to return to spaces where they are less alone: where they can play, cheer and, if only for a few hours, forget the world that is burning outside.
There is only one problem with this whole scenario: our appetite for sports could also be what makes us sick. To bring the virus under control, we demand three things: vaccinations, masking and accountability. Since I just attended a Major League baseball game, I can tell you that hiding and being responsible, at least, just wasn’t possible.
Sport, this elixir of life, hugs our jerseys and takes us to a place where “normality” is truly a substitute for ruin. Maybe we need to take an honest look at the mutations and the lack of protections and shut it all down. Maybe sports should be banned until this country – at the bare minimum – is sufficiently vaccinated. For many, this might be the only incentive that works.
If that was our kid, we would say, “No sport until you’re well. We have to say the same to this country. If 2021 was the year the sports world decided that the show should continue, sincerely hope that 2022 can be a time of sobriety and recovery. It almost certainly won’t happen: the financial and personal imperatives are just too strong. But I will still defend the case. With our collective health at stake, let’s just stop.