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Jane McManus: Sports In A Bubble

There’s nothing that can chill the spine quite like a story from Edgar Allan Poe. One of the most captivating and shortest is the Masque of the Red Death.

In the story, which anyone can read in its entirety at Poemuseum.org., Prince Prospero walls himself off from a plague-ravaged realm and holds a lavish ball for 1000 revelers.

Poe writes: “His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not.”

Poe does not write happy endings, and I don’t do spoiler alerts for a story written in 1842. Prospero and his hubris are exposed by an unwelcome visitor to his isolated abbey, and by the stroke of midnight he and all his guests… well I won’t spoil all of the horror.

Literature has no shortage of examples of how transmittable illnesses can devastate and change communities. Boccacio’s Decameron, The Plague by Camus, Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera – the lessons are there if we care to heed them.

Which brings me to sports, and the idea of holding events in a bubble that is not fundamentally much different than Prince Prospero’s plan for a ball. Like his fictional realm, much of the United States is aflame with coronavirus transmission. Despite our 180 years of technical innovation, in this country we have not managed the discipline necessary to keep our case, and death numbers low. We have 4% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s fatalities.

But more to the point, part of Poe’s morality tale centers on the barbaric lustre of merely holding the ball in the midst of the plague. Of ignoring the suffering and the dying for the charade of gaiety.

As someone who has covered sports for a quarter century, I fear that is what we are doing now. Sports are possible because our society has been so functional. Now we are trying to stand them up again as some sort of macabre theater of normality in the midst of a pandemic.

And it’s not going well. According to ESPN, Clemson football had 47 players test positive for the coronavirus after “voluntary” workouts. There have been similar outbreaks in college programs across the country as institutions treat “student-athletes” like essential workers. Novak Djokovic and three other players, plus coach Goran Ivanisevic, tested positive after an ill-conceived Adria Tour tennis event that included handshakes and after-hours clubbing.

The NBA, MLS and WNBA have all planned to hold their shortened seasons in Florida, where the virus is surging. Even Disney World has postponed the reopening there.

As the reality of this virus hits, leagues are adjusting. The NFL cancelled the Hall of Fame game and has shortened the preseason from two games to four. And yet the league still plans to play a full season with fans, who might be asked sign a liability waiver for the privilege of a seat.

There are a lot of reasons why leagues are pushing so hard to bring sports back. Primarily economic. Sports networks need live coverage to draw viewers, which draws advertising, which makes those broadcasting contracts so lucrative.

Athletes need to play. There are the venders, the team staff, the media outlets that all depend on sports for their livelihoods. I’ve had no joy watching as hundreds of colleagues have been laid off or furloughed in this pandemic.

Then you have a president and bully in chief, who has spent more time on the phone with league commissioners than he has looking into the potential of Russian bounties on American soldiers. But that is a commentary for another day.

The imperative to get sports back is real, and yet it doesn’t change the fact that this isn’t where we should be putting our attention at the moment. Getting 2,000 NFL players together in training facilities and on fields will put those players, coaches and staff at risk for infection. The argument that they probably won’t die if they get the virus allows for the likelihood that some will die. And for what? It doesn’t get us closer to a vaccine, it doesn’t improve our health as a nation.

If we had mitigated this virus like South Korea and Germany have, then we could try to responsibly restart the sports economy. Instead, we face the reality that having an NFL team go from Dallas to Seattle to Jacksonville in subsequent weeks, with fans and stadium staff and press, is a recipe for sickness and possibly death. We’ve lost nearly 130,000 people, are we tired of our ineptitude yet?

More than sports, getting students back in school should be a priority. And many districts are facing budget cuts at a moment when they need to entirely renovate and adapt classrooms to fewer students. National attention and funding should be directed toward that effort in that the economy is more likely to benefit.

As long as we think we can wall ourselves from the reality the coronavirus represents, we will not solve a problem that has confronted human communities for thousands of years. We need to give it our full focus and attention, and not expect athletes to risk their health for our entertainment, or sports to lull us into false securities while the unwelcome guest remains at the abbey’s door.

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.

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