The Risks of Putting Our Faith in Sports

We often like to put the sports world on a pedestal, pointing to they ways in which sports lead the way in social change. Perhaps most famous is the story of Jackie Robinson and the integration of MLB, which came well before the peak of the larger Civil Rights Movement. When the history of our current era is written, I expect that the protest movement launched by Colin Kaepernick will be framed as a critical juncture.

A few months ago, it felt like many of us began taking Covid more seriously in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s positive test and the mid-game stoppage of the NBA season. If healthy athletes were at risk, so were the rest of us. But perhaps our faith in sporting institutions can be misplaced: I fear that the steady march of professional sports leagues attempts to resume play instilled a false sense of confidence in the public at large. If it could be safe to play, then it must be safe for the rest of us to resume life as usual. Today, with the virus raging across the country, it’s clear that many of us were too quick to restart. And with a slew of positive tests emerging from across the sports world, it looks like the leagues were pushing too hard as well. If these leagues, with their near-infinite resources, can’t contain this thing, what does that mean for the rest of us? The leagues are still pushing forward, but maybe they shouldn’t be.

We long for the return of games as a symbol of a larger return to normalcy, but there has been nothing normal about the structures put into place for safe return to play. And those structures aren’t working. I understand the myriad motivations for the return to play, but it pains me to say that we probably shouldn’t be, save for the precious few sports that can truly pull it off safely. Given their influential place in American society, the most ethical thing these organizations could have done was to press pause for the year and direct their resources to serving their communities. But it’s a business and I get it. My hope now shifts to transparency, that seeing the lengths leagues and teams have to go to approach safe operations offers lessons to the rest of us about how seriously we should be taking things. I hope that the truncated seasons go off without any major catastrophe and I hope that we learn from their struggles as much as we enjoy their programming.

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