My favorite part of watching football is when the quarterback throws a ball in a spot where only the receiver can catch it and the receiver defies what we think we know about acrobatics to complete the reception. My least favorite part of watching football is the unavoidable fact that the sport is destroying its competitors.
The moral justification, one that I find entirely oversimplistic but not completely devoid of merit, is that the players have agreed to do this. Those competing at a level below college are not legal adults, and those in college are not being paid for their services, but there is some validity to the argument that adults should have the right to put themselves in danger for a paycheck. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy watching the danger. Sports have generally moved away from components that create excessive chance of brain injury among their competitors–even the most rabidly pro-beanball baseball fans ask that players hit by pitch are hit far away from the head, and rules changes in hockey have made fighting nearly obsolete and body checking less advantageous than in the past. Football has made some steps, but the progress has been comparatively glacial. Though maybe sufficient progress is impossible in this sport’s case.
The first half of May usually represents a high water mark for the sports calendar. Baseball is fully into gear, the NBA and NHL playoffs are exhilerating and chaotic, and international professional soccer leagues are winding down. What I wouldn’t give at this point for just one of these familiar diversions to be in place. Particularly when the Blues have made long playoff runs, I have proclaimed that I wish I could bottle up the NBA playoffs, which I neglect by comparison, and keep it in storage for a less sports-loaded time. That claim is starting to feel like a prophecy.
That said, I understand why I am being deprived of these sporting comforts. The world is a dangerous place, and in order to prevent unnecessary mass casualties, I have to stay at home and watch old sporting events and master my NBA 2K15 game (I mean, the soundtrack is maybe the most unimpeachable sports video game soundtrack I’ve ever heard–it sets up hours of gameplay quite well). When my grandpa was called to sacrifice, he had to fight in World War II. I’ll take it.
At the risk of aligning myself with Norman Chad’s widely-ratioed Washington Post column from last weekend arguing that we need less sports in our lives, I would argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has showed that we can survive without wall-to-wall sports. It’s a small silver lining amidst an onslaught of horribleness, but there is something liberating about feeling like you can have fun without sports. That said, I wouldn’t argue against one coming back.
And the next major American one back might be baseball. The NBA and NHL are up against major calendar restraints–even if they could restart their leagues tomorrow, the calendars would extend into August without major playoff format changes. The NFL, perhaps the sport best suited for a pandemic in the sense that it is a largely made-for-TV product with a relatively insignificant share of revenue derived from stadium attendance, might still start on time–they have nearly four months to decide. Baseball is somewhere in the middle, and countless proposals for shorter seasons and crazier postseason formats have been offered to assure that a 2020 baseball season happens.
The concessions to the “integrity” of the game don’t bother me. I’m fairly apathetic to the designated hitter, but even if I despised it, I can’t imagine preferring no baseball to DH baseball. I’d rather not see the Cardinals stuck with an erratic schedule with arbitrary divisions, but if it brings me baseball, that doesn’t bother me. The concern I have about a resumption of Major League Baseball is my concern that I am watching a sport that does not care about the health and safety of its labor.
In March, the MLB Player’s Association and Major League Baseball reached a financial agreement where the players would received pro-rated salaries in accordance with how much of the season is played, and in exchange, players would still accumulate service time. It was a rare case of the MLBPA supporting its more lowly paid players, who will now be able to reach arbitration and free agency sooner, rather than its richest players, who will lose the most from their salaries. But a deal was reached. And now, MLB owners, who continue to have firmly closed financial records and are uniformly wealthier than even the richest MLB players, are crying poor and insisting that players accept less money. And now, because owner salaries aren’t printed in the sports section while player salaries are, players are being asked to sacrifice a bigger chunk of their contractually-obligated salaries, and public perception is coming down against them.
On Tuesday, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, net worth of $3.4 billion, decried MLB players for “holding out” during a time when everybody is sacrificing (he did not note that MLB players are functionally furloughed until the games resume). On Wednesday night, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell voiced his opposition to the owners’ proposed 50-50 revenue split and cited health concerns as the reason such a split was “just not worth it”. What followed was a chorus of outcry about how Blake Snell is rich and plays a kid’s game for a living and how I’d play for free if they’d let me. And I get it–I know how much Blake Snell makes, and it’s more than I make. I don’t even know the name of the Tampa Bay Rays’ owner off the top of my head, nor how much said owner makes (editor’s note: Stuart Sternberg, net worth of an incredibly modest by MLB owner standards $800 million).
I tend to believe MLB owners are lying about their financial situation. It is possible they aren’t, but given the revenues of the league and the constant appreciation of franchise values, it seems unlikely that the situation is actually dire (that said, if they were willing to open their books, I’d keep an open mind). But one thing is certain–they are not inherently putting themselves at more risk with the opening of the sport once again. An owner can conduct team business from home. Players cannot. Even if games are played in empty stadiums, the sport must be played with dozens of people present, at the minimum. Players have lives and families and it is impossible for them to remain completely segregated from them–either they threaten to expose them to COVID-19 or they will be forced to spend months away from them. Neither sounds pleasant. I don’t want either to happen on my accord.
Some baseball fans have taken to following the Korean Basbeall Organization, and while I wish those fans all the best, I can’t get into it. The time differences make it difficult, but most of all, I am unfamiliar with the narrative arc of the KBO. I know Major League Baseball players and teams and I am caught up on the storylines of it. As such, I care about the people involved. And I don’t want the people involved, virtually none of whom I have ever met and none with whom I have a relationship of any kind, to be hurt. And if baseball cannot assure the safety and emotional well-being of its players, I don’t know that I want to watch it. I have agency in this. Just as my passion for football was tested by concerns over the safety of its players, I am being put in the same position with baseball. And I’m not sure that I know where I will stand.