Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
To one of the many members of the Miami Marlins who has tested positive for Covid-19, it likely feels like a century since Rudy Gobert – the first player in the NBA to test positive for Covid-19 in March – said he was sorry for downplaying the risks of the disease. But here we are: the Atlanta Braves faced the Marlins in exhibition play just last week, the Baltimore Orioles don’t have anyone to play now, the Yankees v. Phillies game is postponed, and questions remain as to why the Marlins played on Sunday after news broke that four players tested positive, including, apparently, Jose Urena, scratched from his scheduled start.
Games can only go on until they can’t anymore, something that Florida’s schools, which are on schedule to reopen in August, might take to heart – especially as the Marlins await their latest round of test results in hotel rooms in Pennsylvania. Theirs is a luxury students and teachers, no doubt, won’t have available to them throughout the upcoming school year.
Instead of serving as a reward for getting our response to a global pandemic right – by installing the necessary measures of social distancing and masks, masks that, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could bring this thing to a manageable level within weeks – baseball is now a microcosm of how to best battle our imploding failures, a grand experiment for our other institutions, perhaps especially the public schools that the man in the White House is so eager to reopen so America can get “back to work.” Just as sport, particularly the NBA, became the key signal for America to shut it all down in March, it now has to show the way back.
We first talked about the return to sport and school, to gyms and movie theaters, in late April, as the curve began to flatten in America’s hot spots through the hard work of strict mask and social distancing mandates. Even here in New Rochelle, New York, where my daughter’s school was amongst the first to close on the East Coast, plans for fall began, counting on a trajectory that made sense according to the data.
The NBA, one of the first major institutions in the country to shut down, waking many Americans up to the impending disaster, hatched a plan to finally finish out its season, choosing Florida as the location for its veritable bubble.
The NBA, like most Americans, thought we would be in a different place by now. Well, we are. And because of a feebly coordinated and fundamentally uninformed reaction to a global pandemic throughout the American South and Southwest, one that ignored the devastating lessons engraved by New York in the national consciousness as well as a laundry list of best practices by public health officials and experts, it’s worse.
Yet still we talk about the new school year, about football games and science labs, as if public education is the product of magical thinking and a professional baseball league should be doing the public health legwork that the federal government has seemingly abandoned.
Hindsight can be, quite literally, a killer. We are in uncharted territory, a place where we have to reimagine sport as a societal problem to solve, one that cannot be a distraction from reality because it is steeped in it, right up to its very chin.
Back in April, the Florida the NBA planned upon did not include single day records in cases or deaths. Back in April, baseball was considering Arizona as its landing site. Think on that for a hot minute, and not in terms of weather.
On the one hand, sport should not have come back before anything else could. Playing the game without spectators isn’t a solution – it’s an indicator that maybe it shouldn’t happen, with lessons learned at the Champions League game between Atalanta and Valencia back in February, launching the outbreak that took out much of Bergamo, Italy. Why would we think that if sport wasn’t safe for its spectators, it could be safe for its athletes?
But we are past the point of asking if sport should be back: sport is back, and there is a lot to learn from it. In many ways, baseball feels like the perfect place to try it all out, a game in which physical contact, barring the occasional bench-clearing brawl, center field collision, and dramatic tag out at second, is often the very essence of sportsmanship, whether a high five for a spectacular catch or the gregarious group of jumping joy that greets a home run hitter as he crosses home plate, ensuring that what happens on the field, at least symbolically, stays on the field.
But Covid-19 isn’t much of a good sport, knowing few, if any boundaries, and having no loyalty to one team over another.
The fact of the matter is that despite the deep resources of America’s national pastime, which is funding constant testing and isolation protocols, the Marlins, a team valued at nearly a billion dollars, couldn’t keep its roster, a roster that is smaller than my daughter’s social studies class, safe past its first three games of this truncated season.
Surface contagion, according to the CDC, should not be the focus of our preventive practices, something that is guiding school reopening plans that involve acrylic glass, alternating days and cafeteria “grab and go” bags. But however low that risk might be, it is great enough to keep the Yankees out of the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia because the Marlins occupied the space just 24-hours earlier.
And yet my kid is supposed to sit at that desk?
Unlike my daughter’s school district (of nearly 11,000 students,approximately 730 staff and a school year of 180 days), Major League Baseball wrote a 113-page manual to outline a 60-game season that involved about 8,000 people, with players, unlike the NBA’s bubble, living at home and travelling despite the fact that at least 19 teams had positive cases before the new “spring training” even started. They did this ignoring that teams from New York and Boston had far different backdrops, places that worked hard through tough mandates to flatten their curves than the likes of the Miami Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks or Houston Astros, whose home fanbases are now dealing with catastrophic levels of the pandemic, something that worried the Canadian government so much, it essentially told the Blue Jays to find a new home until season’s end.
Meanwhile, despite being considered the wealthiest nation on earth, America’s schools do not seem to have the infrastructure of a baseball team, and yet it is still the arena that we count on for child care during the workday, for food and social services and, in the months that are soon to come, warmth and light. As the American Academy of Pediatrics, in its statement about why school is about so much more than academics, concludes, “our nation’s response to Covid-19 has laid bare inequities and consequences for children that must be addressed.”
Covid-19 hasn’t created fractures. It has thrown a spotlight on them. Perhaps if we funded our schools like baseball – if teachers got contracts like Mike Trout or Mookie Betts or, minimally, didn’t have to pay for their own school supplies and bulletin boards – they’d be better prepared to make it work this fall.
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But they aren’t. And it turns out that even with all that it has, including an evidence-based approach to reopening that doesn’t involve hopes the virus will just one day “disappear,” baseball already has problems, ones that we must take seriously if we want to figure this out and find a new normal we all can live with. So let’s play ball, because right now, sports might be the only national public health examples we’ve got.