Considering the “success” of sports during a pandemic

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​If you’re just talking about in terms of players falling ill with coronavirus, professional sports leagues in America have done a pretty decent job of having seasons despite the presence of an ongoing pandemic. Major League Baseball had some early scares when the Marlins and Cardinals both dealt with outbreaks, but then, until Justin Turner tested positive and then decided it was fine that he got out on the field to celebrate the Dodgers winning the World Series, things were mostly uneventful on the players testing positive front for the league.

The NBA did the best out there, which should not be a shock given their season took place in a bubble, but the WNBA also deserves a nod for their own success navigating the pandemic. The NFL is a mess, but of course they are: that’s what happens when you combine the hubris of MLB with even less care given to the actual health and safety of the players.

This is an extremely narrow window through which to view sports during a pandemic, though. Off-field personnel in MLB and the NFL would (and do) test positive for coronavirus, and if it’s even mentioned at all by some of the media members that cover those leagues, it’s in an off-handed way that makes it clear that all that really matters is whether or not players tested positive… and whether or not the games will continue to be played. Ventriloquist dummy with a Twitter account Adam Schefter has spent the entire NFL season being like that, but he’s far from alone in the cheerleading of their sport. “If the games aren’t canceled, then nothing bad is happening” is the baseline they operate on, even though the people who determine whether the games are canceled or not are certainly not infallible, just greedy and ill-prepared. The NFL’s covid response makes Rob Manfred and Co. look like they’re dedicated to the wellbeing of their sport and the people that make it happen. Which, you know, check out my archives sometime.

Now, not every media member is like that, not even close, but the people you traditionally think of as league mouthpieces — like Schefter — have been on their game this year, spinning every bit of bad news as actually good news even if it makes them look like their opinions are never their own and not to be taken seriously.

There is a question that probes even deeper into sports in America in 2020, though, than whether or not the seasons have been successful just because they’ve so far managed to avoid killing any athletes or canceling any NFL games. And it gets back to something I wondered before the MLB campaign even began: are sports taking away coronavirus resources from the public?

We have been assured, again and again, that there are enough coronavirus tests available that athletes being continually tested throughout the return of sports won’t be taking away tests from the public. This is a point I have a hard time believing on its face, because no one has bothered to show the math on that yet, but I’m willing to acknowledge that it might be the truth. The thing is, though, that this line, that there are enough tests to go around and resources aren’t being taken away from the public in order to test and retest and retest athletes yet again, is still misleading. Because even if there are enough tests, it’s clear there aren’t enough or robust enough labs to analyze all of the tests: it doesn’t matter if you have enough tests if you lack the machines or technicians to analyze them all in a timely fashion.

And then there was the matter of how the NBA got their slew of test kits before they even postponed their season back in March: solely because they had the foresight, but more importantly, the connections, to load up on tests, even if it meant an entire state was going to have less access to testing for its own citizens because of it:

Now, I’m not suggesting NBA players and staff don’t deserve to know if they’ve come down with the virus. It’s just that they don’t deserve to know if they’re infected any more than people who don’t play or work for an NBA team do. How does an NBA player deserve to be tested more than, say, a Wal-Mart employee from Oklahoma, who can’t use their limited paid sick time when they miss work unless they have a doctor’s diagnosis? That’s Wal-Mart’s policy, by the way, not a manufactured scenario. Who had to show up to work the next day while sick, infected with coronavirus, interacting with hundreds and hundreds of strangers that they then passed their infection on to, because there were no tests left available after the NBA used their power and influence to swipe the majority of a days’ ration? Because if they aren’t paid for their missed work, they can’t afford groceries, or rent, or to treat the symptoms they’re experiencing but can’t have tested yet?

Coronavirus shed light on the inequality between the kinds of people society deems essential, and the workers who actually keep things going because they are given no other choice aren’t it, not when we can distract ourselves with sports by shifting the resources there instead.

If your baseline for a yes, there should be sports, is that they can be played relatively safely, without coronavirus spreading and killing athletes and coaches and grounds crews and so on, then yes, they can be happening. If you go for a broader picture of the state of America during the pandemic, though, and the cost of putting on live sports, the answer is going to be negative. And this isn’t just me bringing up arguments from months ago to say I still don’t think it’s right. It’s me bringing up arguments from months ago because they’re still relevant and on-point today. Take this piece from last week at the Washington Post, which focuses on an emergency room nurse who has yet to be tested for coronavirus despite her entire job these days being dealing with patients who do or are suspected of having been exposed to COVID-19:

But the hardest thing to ignore, [Jane] Sandoval says, is that when it comes to coronavirus testing, this is a nation of haves and have-nots.

Among the haves are professional and college athletes. That’s been true, and a subject of fierce debate, since at least March, when entire rosters of NBA teams got tested for the virus before many Americans could access tests. As sports lurched back to life over the summer, health experts debated the ethics of entire leagues jumping to the front of the testing line. But ultimately the leagues, with billions of revenue dollars at stake, contracted with private labs to pay for the best and fastest tests available — a luxury many hospitals and other healthcare providers, reeling from the pandemic, can’t afford.

From Nov. 8 to 14, the NFL administered 43,148 tests to 7,856 players, coaches and employees. Major college football programs supply dozens of tests each day, an attempt — futile as it has been — to maintain health and prevent schedule interruptions. Major League Soccer administered nearly 5,000 tests last week, and Major League Baseball conducted some 170,000 tests during its truncated season.

Sandoval, meanwhile, is a 58-year-old front-line worker who regularly treats patients either suspected or confirmed to have been infected by the coronavirus. In eight months, she has never been tested. She says her employer, California Pacific Medical Center, refuses to provide testing for its medical staff even after possible exposure.

Sure, no athlete has caught coronavirus and died from it while playing during a pandemic yet. And sure, it seems like Eduardo Rodriguez might be recovering from the enlarged heart that coronavirus gave him, now that he can once again do things like walk without getting winded, anyway. But that doesn’t make mid-pandemic sports a success, not when they are pulling resources away from those who truly need them, not when access and privilege are arranged in such a way that even a hospital is incapable (or unwilling) to put together the funds needed to protect its own workers, who are dealing with the pandemic and putting themselves in harms way daily in order to keep others from dying.

The piece goes on to discuss nurses in Los Angeles who protested the fact that UCLA’s athletic department went through over 1,200 tests in a week while the healthcare workers at UCLA’s hospitals weren’t able to be tested. It talks about how two-thirds of the 15,000 nurses in the largest nursing union in the country responded to a recent survey by saying they haven’t been tested this whole time. The NFL, meanwhile, “has conducted roughly 645,000 coronavirus tests.” That’s 43 tests per union nurse, if you’re wondering.

It’s not just that the tests aren’t free for those who need them, which would help take the burden off of hospitals in need of tests for their healthcare workers. It’s that the priorities are entirely off on who needs them and the facilities required to process the tests in the first place. Both the tests and the lab time are going to places like the NFL, and then they don’t even necessarily use the information learned by the tests to make good decisions. Hundreds of thousands of tests taken more for public relations purposes than for actual safety, while the vast majority of frontline nurses go entirely without. And for something — sports — we could all live without existing during the pandemic, to boot.

Now, just wait until everyone in charge figures out the priority for whatever vaccine ends up developed and on the market first. This certainly won’t be the last story you’ll see in this genre of inequality and poor prioritization.

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