The pro leagues are edging closer to a seasonal re-start. But what if individual players think it’s unsafe, even if the unions agree to play?
If pro athletes need training camps before the re-start of sports, so do fans.
Here’s a prep question for what I’m calling the new covid-based sports world (What? You thought the virus was going away, like a miracle?) to get your sports brain and heart going again:
Will you accept, with understanding, a decision by any of your favorite team’s players to sit out games, and perhaps whatever passes for a season, for reasons of personal safety?
As we daily edge closer to a re-opening of the sports-industrial complex, the discerning fan needs to exercise the dormant ethical/moral muscles (if they existed), to work up a response for what seems like an inevitable development.
As the terms and conditions are negotiated for the contact sports (golfers, tennis players, race drivers, etc., please excuse yourselves from his discussion), players’ unions and individual athletes will be faced with decisions unprecedented in the history of organized sports.
In the absence of a vaccine or successful therapies, coupled with the inconsistent supply of accurate testing kits and the extraordinary lift required to keep the playing environment virus-free, is the risk worth it?
For the vast majority, the answer is yes. Pro sports-team players understand their careers are fragile, likely less than three years. Most will get one shot at making a roster in the major sports. So no matter the risk, passing on a chance for even one year at a salary many won’t match for the rest of their lives is almost impossible to imagine.
That is the sort of rationalization football players rely upon to continue to play despite increasing evidence that the mandatory collisions in the sport can lead to brain trauma that produces the horrors of CTE.
Covid-19 is different. The threat is not years down the road; it is immediate.
Many athletes have seen the consequences in real time among family, friends and neighbors. More than 80 percent of the NBA’s rostered players are African American, 70 percent in the NFL. About 23 percent of active MLB players were born in Latin America. The communities of color have been disproportionately blasted by covid-19.
While it’s true that more than 90 percent of confirmed cases are not fatal, that point ignores the long-term mental and physical health damage to many victims of this unique disease, the health consequences to others if/when patients were asymptomatic, and the pressure put on the already exhausted health-care system.
Raheem Mostert, the 49ers’ running back who rushed for 220 yards in the NFC Championship, is among the few NFL athletes so far to articulate publicly his apprehension.
On March 4, he backed out of a public autograph session over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, an action that drew criticism for over-reaction. By March 13, virtually every sport in America had shut down.
“It was one of those things where we knew that something like this was going to take place, and we wanted to be prepared,” he said on a video call with Bay Area reporters Wednesday. “That’s why I was the first one to start thinking about what’s going on in the upcoming months.”
Mostert remains with his family in Cleveland. He knows will have to go back to work. He also knows the NFL and the 49ers won’t be able to guarantee his safety when practice resumes.
He said virus fears have moved Mostert’s wife, Devon, to tears.
“She understands that, no matter what, this is my job,” Mostert said. “I have to do what my job requires me to do, which is all fair. She wants football to be back and sports to be back, in general. We don’t know what it’s going to take in order for us to be back out there on the field, testing every week or playing in a different state or what-have-you.
“We just got look at the brighter side and hope and pray that everyone is looking out for each other.”
Hope and pray. The sentiment is understandable, but the value of those tactics against the virus are unproven. Mostert’s misgivings are legit.
That feeling likely is prominent in a small but influential class of veteran athletes who have made a lot of money. They have the luxury of putting safety first. They are the ones who most likely would consider opting out, particularly if the shortened pre-season training increases the risk of injury. They also would be the kind of athlete that is a difference-maker, a guy whose absence would have a material impact on winning.
Even if the unions agree to restrictions on player behavior, game operations and travel in order to re-start, or start anew, will it not be possible for individuals, for reasons of safety, to say no and opt out of their spots and salaries for 2020? To borrow from the rules of the Vietnam war, can there be a status of conscientious objector?
The owners certainly wouldn’t like it. The chances for long-shot team to get lucky in a half-season of high disruption is higher, and the teams losing stars for non-injury reasons see their investment damaged even further than the shutdown has already. Owners would probably sound as churlish as Jerry Dipoto.
Interviewed on 710 ESPN radio, via the Seattle Times, the Mariners GM was talking mostly about potential player complaints around compensation in negotiations for an agreement to re-start, and wasn’t having it.
“My general thought is just, go play,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, we’re very fortunate to do what we do, and whatever our job is in professional sports. In this moment in time, and I guess any moment, my urge is, as we develop culture and as we develop character with our club, understand that it’s a big world around you and there are a lot of people suffering. Don’t whine. Just go play.”
Dipoto sounds a bit like a crotchety grandpa telling his lazy grandkids that back in the day, he used to walk to school five miles in hip-deep snow, uphill both ways. But this is a tad more serious, as in life and death. And it doesn’t fulfill Mostert’s aspiration that everyone look out for each other.
Baseball in particular must thread the needle on so many logistical details in the attempt to assure safety for games played nearly every day that it borders on the absurd. Objecting in part or in whole is not whining, not when 100,000 Americans will have died in the disease’s first four months in the U.S. by the end of the holiday weekend.
Let’s re-state the obvious in Seattle sports: Stefan Frei, Marco Gonzales, Breanna Stewart and Russell Wilson are not essential. The doc, the cop, the bus driver, the grocery clerk and the farm worker are essential.
If one of the non-essentials declines to participate out of fears for safety, I’m OK with that. If the essentials decline to participate, some of us are dead.