Jane McManus: Not A Game | WAMC

Jane McManus: Not A Game

Apr 7, 2020

This Saturday, as the toll of coronavirus deaths in the United States approached 10,000, President Trump called together a meeting of sports league commissioners.

Priorities.

An official White House readout of the call notes that the commissioners thanked Trump for his leadership, and he told them to continue to support the American people at this challenging time.

Later in the daily circus of a coronavirus press briefing, Trump confirmed that he wanted the NFL to start on time this fall, with fans in the seats.

Public health officials note that before things can get back to normal, we have to control the transmission of this deadly disease.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, Trump has sold fantasies of national recovery. Anyone remember the churches being full on Easter? And what is more normal than sports?

The NBA really introduced the seriousness of coronavirus to the public at large when players walked off the court after Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive. The NBA abruptly halted the season on March 11.

None of the circumstances that prompted that chain of events has changed. Limited testing has still hampered the ability of public health experts to see the full extent of transmission. There is no vaccine, no cure, and we are still in the dark about which anti-viral medications are truly protective versus those that serve as placebos.

We humans still shed virus when we are sick, and even before that. All it takes is a few droplets of sweat or spit to infect someone else, and when team uniforms are sleeveless and bodies collide for rebounds, when a full body tackle becomes a pile-on, all it takes is one contagious player to infect many.

Now take that to the stands, where mere feet from the back of your head, 10 other people are screaming in support of their favorite player, or blasting the refs, and eating a hotdog or popcorn or touching your arm rest as they sit down.

It’s the opposite of social distancing.

There have been some pundits on sports cable – where a lack of live programming leaves time for fantasy-spinning – who postulate quarantine hotels where all the players live and play games. But you can’t play sports in a bubble, or on a blimp circling Antarctica, or on the Moon. Sports are the effect of a functioning society – not the precursor.

You need trucks to transport food, people to clean the floors, transit workers to get them to work, announcers to call the games, camera operators to catch the highlights. You need people with enough disposable income to buy tickets or pay for cable. You need spectators who can spend the time watching a game instead of anxious over how they will pay rent after losing a job, or mourning a parent taken from this world too soon.

In other words, you need the world to work again before the games can come back.

Yes, during the Great Depression and WWII and at other times sports have been an excellent escape, but you can’t do that with a virus. The things that make sports unhealthy are the same things that make our society unhealthy.

If fans can pack MetLife in August for the annual Jets-Giants preseason game, it won’t be due to wishful thinking, but to the clear-eyed pragmatism that installs a comprehensive national testing system, with quick results, contact tracing and isolation for the sick. It will mean the ability to test athletes on the day of the games, and enough testing available that it isn’t an unfair priority.

Trump has not prepared America for the kind of sacrifice we might have to endure. A president who received draft deferrals during Viet Nam due to bone spurs, does he even have the stomach for shared hardship?

Take this Saturday when he called together all the commissioners – what was the reason, other than flexing his power? Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx were not on the call, so any real discussion about the conditions we would need to bring sports back was utterly missing.

It’s fine to give people hope, but there is a time and a place. It’s hard to imagine Trump’s Saturday wouldn’t have been better spent planning how to get us back to a world that actually functions – finding needed hospital equipment and nationally coordinating our response -- rather than thinking about the sports we’ve played.

It’s the difference between real leadership and role-play.

I love sports. I’ve played and covered and written about them all my life. But this isn’t a game. And until we face that, we will lengthen the time it takes to get back to them.

Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.