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Amy Bass: And While We Are At It, The Fans, Too

Amy Bass
Rodney Bedsole

I was reminded a few weeks ago just how powerful the tug of sports on our hearts and heads can be when a highly anticipated showdown between the Yankees and the Red Sox was postponed because of COVID.

To say that I had been looking forward to the start of this series would be a gross understatement.  A friend drove down from Massachusetts to watch with me, and we toyed with the idea of snatching some tickets and heading to the Bronx.  The rain that has plagued us this summer – the so-called summer of America’s return to normal – seemed to understand that baseball mattered, and the day was hot and sunny, the air moving just enough to make the humidity bearable, and there was nary a drop of water to be found in the sky.

But no.  COVID said no.  The Yankees announced three confirmed cases of COVID among their pitching staff, with another three awaiting test results, including slugger Aaron Judge, who had just spent several days at a packed Coors Field for All-Star game festivities, rubbing elbows with the best of the best in the major leagues, including the unprecedented five all-star starters from the Red Sox.  At least one of those players, according to Boston management, and much to my chagrin, was not vaxxed; the Yankees confirmed that at least one of their six was not as well.

Aaron Judge, of course, later proved to be positive.

While COVID continues to dominate news from Tokyo, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the world, it might be time for sports to start thinking about how it can do more than figure out ways to exist at this point.  The NFL’s recent announcement that it would penalize teams with outbreaks amongst the unvaccinated is a good place to start, forcing a forfeit if the game is unable to be easily rescheduled.  Further, these teams would be accountable for covering any lost revenue from the cancellation, and players would not collect their game check.

While the NFL is driven, undoubtedly, by money – a missed football game is worth millions – imagine the possibilities here.  France’s Emmanuel Macron’s ultimatum to the French people – get vaxxed or get left behind, launching a new health pass, or passe sanitaire, for entrance into commercial and cultural spaces – instantly produced a million new requests to get jabbed.

So what if sport jumped on board in the United States?  What if, say, SEC football declared a mandatory vaccination protocol for its players, coaches, administrators, and – oh yes – fans?  Four of the five least vaccinated states in America host SEC teams, and the league is starting to rethink its COVID protocols, possibly reinstituting mask mandates and mandatory testing, even for teams who achieve the 85% vaccinated threshold, and is threatening forfeit for teams who cannot produce a healthy roster.

But what if the SEC went one step further?  While many of the teams are fast approaching 85% vaccinated – indeed, Alabama is claiming it’s at 90% – their fans are not.  Alabama has stagnated at 33.9% statewide, while Mississippi is at 33.8%.  This isn’t about maybe when it comes to football creating super spreader events.  These stadiums look to be at full capacity for the fall schedule, and while an outdoor setting helps slow virus transmission, we only need to look at the infamous soccer match in Italy last year to understand how a cheering fan spews respiratory droplets into the air like a boss.

This is about more than just making sure the trains – or games – run on time.  This is about using sport to get America’s vaccination numbers where they should be, where they need to be, if we ever are going to beat this thing.

Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.

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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