The bells are tolling -- soccer, basketball, hockey, and, most recently, baseball. Professional sports in this country are starting to rouse from their COVID-19-induced slumber like the bloated bears they are. Surely, with them will come the eventual return of collegiate sports this fall before, finally, the fattest, laziest, most bellicose bear of them all -- the NFL -- belches its way back onto our TV screens.
In true 'Damn the Torpedoes' fashion, this process has fired up before this country had fully come to grips with its many festering wounds, including 2+ million cases and over 120,000 COVID-19-related deaths to-date, the resulting historic level of unemployment, the murder of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and countless others), the resulting Black Lives Matter protests forcing White America to (again) face its own bullshit, and the militarized response to those very protests that further highlighted the critical issue of pervasive police violence. That's not to mention the pre-existing Swords of Damocles swaying above our collective necks named Climate Change, Income Disparity, Failing Infrastructure, and what could turn out to be the most fraught national election since 1860.
Bodies are literally piling up, but... here's some baseball to keep us distracted?
Those are all pressing issues, and our society has shown that it is prepared to adequately deal with exactly none of them. Let's take the global pandemic, for one. We've allowed the wearing of masks to the grocery store to become a political litmus test, rather than a matter of civic duty and health necessity. States across the American South are experiencing their first real spikes at a time that they're desperately trying to re-open their economies, and we haven't even seen the second wave of cases that, most assuredly, will be coming at some point this year. Our best hope of a vaccine is still months away, and, while there is some hope that effective treatments are being uncovered, cases are still piling up and people are still dying. We're at the point, lagging behind the rest of the world in our response, that other countries are looking to designate us a plague ship, and let us drift off on our own. All while we're tying to force people back into some semblance of normalcy to jump-start a stagnating economy.
And this is the scenario under which we should be holding baseball games? Opening up thousands of our youth, already scheduled to be crammed back onto campuses, to exposure for football, basketball, and everything else? As with the teenager that didn't clean its room, didn't eat their vegetables, and didn't complete their homework, yet still wanted to play videogames, any real parent would be pulling the plug on this nonsense.
Lost in most of this are the players themselves, and I'm going to focus on baseball here. Conflicted in their desire to capitalize on the short period of time they are able to cash checks based on their talent, they're being thrown into an untenable situation by people who will not share their risk. The owners? They'll be miles away, as isolated as possible from the teeming masses. The fans? Most likely barred from entry, or at least severely socially distanced. And, while the players, as a group, could be considered healthy and at minimal risk, there are going to be many among them in one of the at-risk categories, or who have family members that meet the criteria. We've already seen how the actions of a few can affect a team in training -- what happens when those teams are then set to travel around the country? They're being asked to balance their need to provide for their families against the health of the very same. And I'm supposed to be excited about this?
Maybe you don't care, and just want your sports anesthesia back; that you don't want to hear about the real-world concerns of 'overpaid' athletes. "But they get paid so much to play a kid's game," you may even vomit up. Realistically, the average MLB player only has a 5-6 year window to cash in on their talents, and that's after 2-5 years in the minors making less than minimum wage. A solid 5th of those same players only have one year to sip their coffee in a big league stadium (How many are seeing that year lit on fire right now?). Those millions you greedily note when looking at the headlines are then divided up across taxes, agents, family members, and the cost of living. These are checks that need to cover them and their families well after their ability to throw 95+ has faded, too. "Oh, but I'd still pay to be in their spot, regardless," you might retort. As if anyone wants to see your fat ass take grounders, let alone pay a ticket price to do so. They are paid what they are because there's a lucrative market to view their talent. And their window to do so is already so short.
Given all of that, I honestly don't know what I would do, were I in the situation of, say, the 6th or 7th member of a bullpen. Report and risk the health of you and your family, or miss out on what could be your only real shot of earning money in your career. How different is that, really, then the choices being made by meat-processing workers or restaurant employees who are weighing the demands of their boss against their health and the health of their families? (Other than an actual, industry-driven support system in place to help fight for them, of course.)
For those that do return, I imagine they'll get the same treatment as our front-line workers in hospitals, ambulances, grocery stores, and restaurants across the country -- that is, given lip-services of gratitude, a few flag-waving moments of half-hearted patriotism, then, ultimately, left to fend for themselves. And that's the best-case scenario. Like everyone, they're about to be caught up in the grinding gears of an accelerating desire for normalcy that doesn't care about the reality of the situation or real people it chews up. A system of human invention that is decidedly inhumane.
... and yet... the day the MLB return plan was leaked also brought with it the news from Illinois that they were planning to move their COVID-19 response plan into Phase 4. It contains a particular note that caught my eye: "Outdoor spectator sports can resume with no more than 20% of seating capacity; concessions permitted with restrictions." My immediate reaction was revoltingly selfish -- "when is the first Sox game with fans, and how much will tickets be?" After a brief pause, I recoiled in horror at myself -- knowing everything above, how could I then, so quickly, give into the temptation of feeding this monster?
I am part of the problem.
All things considered, I have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic. I've been fortunate to keep my job (for now), through a combination of our CEO's predilection to worst-case scenario planning, a PPP loan, and a patch-work customer base that has somehow crawled along. No one that I am close to has died from the virus, or even, at least to my knowledge, contracted it. I have family and friends on the 'front-line', but they are staying healthy (again, to my knowledge). My mother, a diabetic in her early 70s, is clearly considered at-risk, but, after some early cajoling, has stayed safe at home (at least, for the most part). I am very lucky, and am very cognizant of that fact.
To that end, I have also tried to 'be good' -- staying home, washing my hands, wearing a mask when I'm out and about, limiting interaction with people regardless, eschewing most temptations to to contrary, etc. I shaved my head rather than go out for a hair cut (probably need to do that again, in fact). I grew a quarantine beard, and learned to work from home. I took up home improvement projects to keep myself occupied. Throughout, I've tried to set a good example to my friends and coworkers. I've tried to be the civically upstanding man I've always assured myself that I am - conscientious of both those around me and my responsibility to help my fellow man out.
The side affects, however, have been pretty assertive. Staying home, even with what distanced social interaction I can muster, has meant staying alone. My life had previously mostly revolved around things outside of my house, things that are not socially responsible right now -- travel, sports (both playing and spectating), hanging out with friends, etc. My house had always been intended to be a place of momentary respite, not a fortress on continuing solitude. It's a situation that has led directly to depression, weight gain, and an increase in my alcohol intake. The introspection forced upon me due to quarantine over the last few months has been particularly damning, and this is only the most recent instance. I'm not who I was four months ago, and I'm not happy about it.
Further, my career (I work in hospitality) is not only dependent on the mobility of the national populace, but its desire to express that mobility, specifically. The longer our economy remains closed (and people wary of travel regardless of government decrees), with travel reduced and hotel profits stymied, the more damage caused to my company, my employees, and my career.
The temptation, then, to give in to the desire for the return of sports is high. What's 20% of fans in the stands... I'm sure the protocols will keep everyone safe... Just a little taste of the old life, just a taste... To live like 2019 Ben, just for one afternoon -- watching a ballgame, meeting my friends at a brew pub, planning my next trip... just ignore the risks... it'll help out the economy... it'll help out the people I care about...
Am I a weak addict? Am I a pragmatic employer? Am I over-thinking it?
I don't have any answers, and I know full well that self-denial for self-denial's sake is not virtuous. I also know that if/when my beloved White Sox take the field, I'll tune in. But I commit here that I will neither celebrate it nor financially support it. If and when the Buffs take to Folsom Field this fall, I will watch, and even answer the call should the band need alumni participation, but I will not encourage it. Until the health and safety of those plying their trade on the fields of play are assured -- like, really assured, not just paid lip service -- I will do my best not to contribute to the system
And if that means I just have to continue to sit at home, patiently waiting for this all to be over, then, damnit, I will.