The Return of Professional Sports Is a Bad Idea Ethically, Politically, and Practically

But other than that …

Allen, wearing a sleeveless shirt and a medical mask, rides a blue CitiBike on a path past a garden.
The Brooklyn Nets’ Jarrett Allen on Monday in New York City. Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

It would be great to have baseball games on at night again, droning reassuringly in the background of life. It would be great to sit in someone’s yard to watch the NBA playoffs on a big TV. It would be great to pick up takeout and open a cold beverage to watch football kick off in the fall. It would be great, in general, to be able to get excited about something besides the occasional bit of cautiously good news concerning fatality rates and “R < 1.”

Unfortunately, “it would be great” is not sufficient reason to launch pro sports leagues (or the purportedly “amateur” sport of college football, in which assistant coaches often make more than a million dollars a year) at a time when such reopenings are ill-advised on every other known level. But that is what is on the verge of happening.

1. Ethically. The NBA is planning to hold the rest of its season, beginning on July 30, in a so-called bubble in Orlando. Orlando is in Orange County, Florida. There were 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Orange County on Friday, which is more than were reported in the entire state of New York. (It was also revealed Friday that 16 NBA players have already tested positive.) Professional basketball is a contact sport in which as many as 20 athletes play in close quarters with one another, indoors, over the course of two-plus hours; a more perfect method to transmit the coronavirus, which can be spread by the expulsion of breath, could hardly be invented. Major League Baseball also plans to start its season in late July; during baseball games, teams and coaches and staffers sit next to each other in a half-closed dugout for three hours. Seven members of the Philadelphia Phillies have tested positive, as have members of a few other organizations. With the NCAA planning to start football season as scheduled in late August, at least 23 Clemson players have already contracted the disease during workouts, and many other schools have had smaller outbreaks. And this has happened before the beginning of full-contact practices, in which players collide face mask–to–face mask dozens of times during drills and scrimmages.

While there are few enough pro players and staffers that the leagues may be “lucky” enough not to see any cases become severe, conservative back-of-the-envelope math suggests that at least a handful of the country’s 10,000 college football players will require intensive care hospitalization if current levels of viral spread persist and the season proceeds as normal. Even in a “best-case” scenario in which athletes contract the virus but recover quickly or never become symptomatic, though, doctors warn that initial accounts of other patients indicate they could still suffer adverse effects in the long term. According to a Friday Wall Street Journal piece, the range of long-term dangers that medical professionals are concerned about include “prolonged fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain, blood clots, lung scarring and, in the worst-case scenario, heart inflammation triggering a cardiac arrest.”

2. Politically. While polls found that majorities of Americans were willing to lock down and wear masks in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, minority political and business factions succeeded in pushing through premature reopenings. Unsurprisingly, even individuals who are not motivated toward culture-war recklessness have responded to announcements that it is safe to congregate indoors without wearing masks by congregating indoors without wearing masks. This has been disastrous, and cases are spiking back up nationwide. Relaunching some of the country’s most high-profile businesses at this moment would send the exact opposite of the useful signal that was sent in March when the NBA abruptly suspended its season after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive. On a local level, practices and games create unnecessary transmission risks in areas that may already be running short of testing and hospital capacity.

As a number of NBA and college football players have also pointed out, the resumption of sports also risks undermining the urgency of the national protest movement that many players are participating in—and, as Slate’s Joel Anderson wrote, resuming games also eliminates the leverage that those players have to force changes within their own communities.

3. Practically. See above regarding the possible long-term dangers of contracting the virus. What is the NBA’s or MLB’s economic outlook if it steers a significant number of its star players into sustaining permanent lung damage? I’m not a professional sports money expert, but I don’t think it’s good! And this isn’t being done to play “normal” games that have dramatic weight and historical continuity; it’s to hold surreal no-audience competitions and shortened seasons whose outcomes will carry an asterisk if they’re even finished at all.

Picture an alternative: Every league shuts down its operations right now and participates in a “no masks, no sports” awareness campaign. Transmission rates are driven downward to the point that games can be played in front of live crowds, as is already happening elsewhere in the world. Sports come back in the “normal” way, and fans who aren’t distracted by the threat of fatal disease can enjoy and spend money on them like they did in the Before Times, but with the ratings and box-office benefits that only a once-in-a-lifetime national catharsis could create.

Now wouldn’t that be the real “winning play”?