Why the U.S. is Not Ready For Sports

While COVID-19 continues to ravage the United States, there is a continuous push by numerous states to reopen and attempt to return to “normal” life. Even while upwards of 80,000 Americans have lost their lives and tens of millions have claimed unemployment, there are calls to walk-back on the positive effects of social distancing and quarantine. 

Embedded in this movement to reopen America are talks about restarting the various professional sports leagues in the country. The NBA is fully engaged in preparations to attempt to continue the 2019-2020 season in any capacity, with both the league’s top players and owners working to find potential plans to restart league play. The MLB owners are fighting tooth and nail to find an implementation plan to finally reach Opening Day. They recently sent a restart proposal to the MLB Players Association, which includes a 50-50 revenue split, an 82 game schedule reduced from the usual 162, and a potential Opening Day start in early July. And the NFL…well the NFL is acting as if football will be full steam ahead by the usual start of the season, which is in early September. The league’s recently released schedule holds all 16 games and there are plans to begin to reopen NFL facilities this week, which have been closed since March. 

The major professional leagues have all adopted an aggressive and ambitious attitude towards bringing sports back to America. Each coalition of owners represents the viewpoint that bringing back the sports world will do wonders for the morale of the country, which has unequivocally taken a beating from COVID-19. They espouse beliefs on the power of sports to brighten the spirits of a country that just wants to return to normalcy. However, it must be made clear that this altruistic stance is nothing more than a shill in order to regain lost profits from their seasons. In fact, attempting to bring back sports in America at this point would be extremely reckless and insulting to a majority of the country. 

Now, optimists about the prospects of the return of professional sports will point to professional leagues overseas. The Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan has been playing since April 11, beginning their season with empty stadiums after delaying their Opening Day from March 14. The league has been running smoothly since reopening and reintroduced a maximum of 1000 fans into their stadiums on May 8. The Korean Baseball League restarted their season on May 5, once again without fans, and swiftly entered into an agreement with ESPN to broadcast six games weekly. This provided most Americans with their first taste of sports in over two months.

And just this past weekend, European football saw its return as the German Bundesliga restarted its league play. The league’s full slate of matches was available Saturday and Sunday on Fox Sports 1. The top-flight German league became the first league to resume after being postponed due to COVID-19 and did so with no fans, social distancing goal celebrations, and players and coaches on the bench with masks. The top teams like Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich dominated per usual, but with no fans to watch. But, in any form, sports returned in these other countries. 

While the majority of Americans miss sports dearly and look to these foreign leagues as beacons of hope, this should not be the case. American sports fans should feel like that Spongebob screengrab where Squidward is forced to watch from behind a barred window as Spongebob and Patrick frolic in their yards. The existence of sports in leagues like the KBO are examples of what happens when a country is proactive and clear in their Coronavirus response. 

South Korea reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case on January 20, just one day before the United States’ first confirmed case. The South Korean government acted quickly, ramping up its testing operations to detect and prepare for its first mass outbreak of the virus. By late February, the country was testing tens of thousands of its citizens per day, whilst the U.S. was only administering about 300 or 400 per day at the same time (ABC News). This is because the country’s universal healthcare and CDC guidelines granted anyone with the base coronavirus symptoms and recent travel history free access to tests. On top of the testing, the country instituted aggressive contact tracing protocols to track the virus’ outbreak and thorough screening and quarantining of travelers to prepare for the eventual second outbreak. With all of these efforts, South Korea has all but flattened its curve, only seeing 15 new confirmed cases recently due to a loosening of their restrictions. 

A medical staff member in a booth takes samples from a visitor for the COVID-19 coronavirus test at a walk-thru testing station set up at Jamsil Sports Complex in Seoul on April 3, 2020. – (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

The close American ally has simply become the model for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea’s proactive measures, strict adherence to social distancing mandates, and willingness to see this virus through have allowed its major sports league to come back sooner rather than later. Germany has experienced similar success in its response, producing an extremely low death rate due to proactive testing and tracing methods. And to be quite honest, the United States is far from this state of government efficiency that is necessary to even think about resuming sports in the country.

The United States has had the worst response to COVID-19 out of any country in the world. The entire country is basically a coronavirus hotspot at this point. America began testing at a slower rate than other developed countries, contributing to the spread of the virus. According to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard, the U.S. has more than 1.5 million confirmed cases, blowing every other country out of the water. And as of May 17, the is approaching 90,000 deaths due to the virus. We still don’t test enough to have any sort of control over the virus. Out of our population of 329 million, only about 9 million tests have been administered. 

Now, resuming sports would involve a massive undertaking of health and safety protocols. Within the MLB owners’ proposal to return to play, there are requests of over 10,000 COVID-19 tests per week for players and team staff. This insurmountable number of tests would be necessary for every one of the professional sports leagues. Rapid testing would have to become the norm for every game and practice. Athletes would need to be tested every time they step onto the court or field to make sure that there is no chance of the virus spreading through the players again. And with the general American public being strained for tests and treatments, it seems offensive to offload a significant percentage of the health and safety supplies to the major professional sports. There are thousands of critically ill citizens and millions of susceptible Americans. Offloading the tests that they need to a minuscule percentage of the population just in the name of bringing back sports is a slap in the face to every person who has not been able to receive testing in this country. 

It is irresponsible to sell out public safety in the name of sports. And it is otherwise insulting to pretend that bringing back sports is solely for the morale of the United States. It is about money for the owners. In the NBA, the loss of the playoffs would result in the loss of its $2.7 billion annual television package deal.  According to Forbes, the MLB is set to lose as much as $4 billion in revenues if the entire 2020 season is lost. These are the primary motivations. Money moves these leagues, not feelings. Even with the MLB’s proposal and the 50-50 revenue split, which would be horrible for players financially, money shrouds the conversation. If the players do not accept, they are seen as selfish and only concerned about their wallets, framing the owners as the side that wants to get back to sports for the “good of the country.”

America’s coronavirus status does not lend itself to resuming sports. That is just something that we have to come to terms with. Yes, fans across the country miss the NBA playoffs and the beginning of the MLB season. But we are nowhere near ready for sports to return to American society. No amount of lost money can change that. I miss sports as much as anyone, as I not only had to watch as the NBA and MLB have been lost, but my own college baseball season as well. But, the rush to move return to sports would be morally irresponsible. So we all just need to sit down, social distance, and watch the KBO and the Bundesliga as they remind us about the failures of our own country and what could be.

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