As the summer of protests and COVID-19 peaks, sports are set to begin again. After months of quarantine and general unrest, they could provide a nice outlet for pent up energy and frustration, at least among sports fans.
Things aren’t going very smoothly, though. Perhaps that’s a sign that sports should wait.
Unsurprisingly, American professional leagues have faced several setbacks in starting or resuming their seasons. Four Major League Baseball clubs shut down training camps this week due to COVID-19 spread, while most of the other clubs have complained the league’s testing for the virus isn’t nearly robust or fast enough. The National Basketball Association’s “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando was conceived with vigorous health guidelines, but is seeing players drop out left and right due to either fearing illness or literally contracting COVID-19. It doesn’t help that the bubble is in Florida, a state experiencing one of the worst current outbreaks.
In normal times, sports are entertainment and even a distraction from the rigors and realities of everyday life. But professional sports are a product of a society functioning well enough to host major events.
The United States isn’t a functioning society right now.
Sure, grocery stores and pharmacies are open. Garbage is still being picked up and mail delivered. People can even go out to eat in some places or shop at stores they haven’t been able to in months. But none of the semi-reopened economy means America is functioning in any real way to help its most vulnerable people or stop the rampant spread of COVID-19. The recent outbreaks in states that reopened before Memorial Day are proof. President Trump is currently threatening to pull funding from schools that refuse to reopen in the fall, wantonly ignoring health experts advising caution as well as parents and educators expressing fear. The United States isn’t currently being run by logic, reason, or anything resembling competence. It’s being governed by fear, misinformation, and the bravado of a man who doesn’t care if people get sick or die.
That general incompetence means sports should take a backseat to real issues pressing society. It’s not that leagues like the NBA or MLB are necessarily pulling resources from anything else—it’s that pulling off something as complex as a sports season, even in a closed bubble with stringent health protocols, can’t work if the society around it isn’t healthy or functional. Several players are bound to come down with the virus and compromise the already compromised operations. These aren’t full legitimate seasons and the fans know it. Any championship during coronavirus will come attached with an asterisk. Is any MLB contender trading away a top prospect to boost their chances of winning the World Series of a 60-game pandemic-shortened season?
Now more than ever it feels like we need sports to pull us out of the seeming death spiral we’re living through in America. There are also billions of dollars at stake and thousands of jobs, not just for athletes, but for the working class people who broadcast, promote, produce, and elevate their games. Still, society hasn’t stalled or collapsed without sports (or at least not because they’re on pause). At a certain point health needs to take priority over services and industries that aren’t essential. Sports provide a wonderful distraction. But maybe this is a moment we shouldn’t be distracted from.