American sports’ response to coronavirus is still lacking

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Despite the growing threat of coronavirus — which the World Health Organization is close to calling a pandemic, which now has over 1,000 confirmed cases in the United States despite America failing to test for the virus at the same rate as other afflicted countries — American sports leagues, for the most part, are going about business as usual.

Yes, the media is now barred from locker rooms and clubhouses across four major active sports (MLB, NHL, NBA, MLS), but fans are still attending those games. Media members can’t get within six-to-eight feet of a player to interview them, but 20,000-plus people still get to sit elbow-to-elbow, eating food from a concessions worker who can’t afford to take the day off if they have a cough, and then those 20,000 people disperse into the world once more, potentially carrying COVID-19 with them into their next interactions.

This response might end up being uniquely American, too: Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball is playing their spring training games in empty stadiums, while South Korea’s KBO outright canceled theirs. Players’ unions in Italy’s and Spain’s pro soccer leagues are demanding that their own schedules be postponed in order to handle coronavirus and play later, when it’s safe to do so. Italy, as a whole, has effectively shut down because of the intensity of the outbreak there: why would players from Spain’s league have any interest in flying to Italy, potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 and guaranteeing it would then come home with them?

Much of what the rest of the world is doing is proactive, especially in China, where temporary hospitals were built in the span of a week to quarantine and treat those infected by the virus: in America, its sports and its governments (local and federal) and its businesses are being much more reactive. And that’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to containing an outbreak like coronavirus, because these plans aren’t necessarily going to stop it from spreading. They’re simply going to create opportunities for even more spreading to occur, even more patients to be treated. And with the lack of social safety nets in place, that means more people are going to die, or live long enough to see their lives ruined by the bills the American healthcare system will thrust upon them for surviving.

Look at what MLB plans to do, for instance. Their next step, should the locker room plan not be enough, is not to postpone their games or even play in empty stadiums, but to move them to different locations. As if there are places in the country that are going to be safe from a pandemic, should it come to that, and not just more places that players and team employees and media will be able to bring the virus to and from. The goal for MLB remains profiting as much as possible, as soon as possible, and they’ll leap through a series of progressively goofier hoops in order to achieve that goal… when they could just postpone the start of the season.

“Just” is admittedly doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, sure, but rearranging the entire season and where the games are played isn’t going to be simple work, either, and which is more important? Stopping a near-pandemic that seems as if it’ll absolutely need no qualifications like “near” soon enough, or losing profits from punting on ticket and concession sales? The season wouldn’t end until December if it isn’t shortened, and that’s obviously a problem that has to be figured out, but priority one should be the health of the game’s players, its employees, its stadium workers, its fans, and the people in the cities the sport is played in.

One can hope that the MLB Players Association heeds the joint statement of the Italian and Spanish soccer unions, and pushes MLB on postponing the schedule rather than unnecessarily risk the health of all of the above in order to play a game where and when it was originally scheduled before coronavirus was a thing anyone even knew existed. That’s probably what it’s going to take, given what MLB has already planned and is reportedly planning in their handling of COVID-19.

Of course, MLB isn’t responsible by themselves for protecting the country from a pandemic: the NHL, NBA, MLS, and every other active sports league out there also needs to take control of the situation. More localized governments need to be proactive, like with Boston and Philadelphia canceling their respective St. Patrick’s Day parades, or with Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee restricting gatherings to 250 or fewer people — meaning the Mariners can’t play in Seattle right now even if MLB wanted them to.

The federal government has already failed and is continuing to fail in its response to coronavirus: their inaction is going to be part of the reason the WHO will inevitably move this from near-pandemic to actual pandemic, and is one reason why  “most” Americans will end up exposed to the virus at some point. Things never should have gotten to the point where MLB and its ilk were the ones making the calls about what to do in response to coronavirus, but it’s where they find themselves. And they need to be ready to do the right thing(s) where others have not.

If games end up postponed or moved to new locations, stadium workers, whether their job is concessions or maintaining the field or cleaning up bathrooms, need to be compensated for the games they didn’t get to work. Some MLB players will be hit hard by a loss of income, like rookies who haven’t had a big paycheck yet and are still living off of that minor-league salary, rookies who maybe haven’t been paid since last season since spring training is unpaid. But it’s these more hidden workers that make live baseball games happen that’ll truly suffer: whether the companies providing the concessions are the ones paying the workers for the lost time or its the MLB teams themselves in a necessary grand gesture barely matters. They just can’t be forgotten amid the rest of this on a normal day, never mind one where a potential pandemic is involved.

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