This weekend, three St. Louis Cardinals players were revealed to have tested positive for COVID-19. I hesitate to limit this to three; hopefully I’ll remember to update this post in the event that this number increases. It seems like there is a decent chance of that.
Of the three players who have tested positive, two of them–Genesis Cabrera and Elehuris Montero, were confirmed to have flown on the same flight from the Dominican Republic to St. Louis for the team’s preseason camp at Busch Stadium, and the third, Ricardo Sanchez, is also believed to have been on the flight. It’s possible that these three Cardinals coincidentally caught the virus, but based on what we know about transmission of this disease, the more likely (and if nothing else, very scientifically possible) scenario is that players caught the disease from another carrier due to close proximity.
The Cardinals have pledged to adhere to social distancing as the sport plans to resume later this month. But complete social distancing is impossible, and playing a sport in which competitors cannot, in the course of the normal action of the game, remain six feet apart and/or wear face masks (neither of which is absolute in preventing spread of COVID-19, mind you), is an inherently dangerous act. To pretend otherwise goes beyond reckless. And while the NBA’s plan to keep players kept in a sealed-off community in Orlando is fraught with its own ethical concerns, it could theoretically work; MLB would be depending on its players to remain completely safe in the outside world in a country with by far more cases than any other country on Earth. Just this weekend, the St. Louis Blues were confirmed to have four cases of COVID-19 after a group of players (very stupidly) went to a bar in Clayton. If a single Cardinals player or team employee does this, he or she puts the entire organization, and the entirely of Major League Baseball, at risk.
The 2020 season should not be played.
Every sports season is sullied by players being incapacitated, but there is a major difference between a player experiencing shoulder tightness and a player acquiring a potentially fatal disease which he can spread to friends and family. If a player requires Tommy John surgery, this is a burden he alone faces, and the burden he faces is largely professional–a non-athlete can survive without Tommy John surgery, merely facing occasional, minor pain. Athletes who potentially contract COVID-19 will be expected to travel across the United States; each athlete, by virtue of his mere existence, is a potentially high impact carrier.
I understand that we all want sports back in our lives. I, a person who has written several hundred posts about baseball over the last five years of full-time Cardinals blogging, am very much not an exception. More than a return to sports, I want a return to a normal world. And I understand that for millions of sports fans, a return of sports feels like a return to normal. But things are going to be abnormal. That there won’t be fans in the stands (at least in the beginning), that there will be a universal designated hitter, and even the abominable rule about putting a runner on second base to start extra innings can be rationalized, but I don’t think we can fully prepare ourselves for how abnormal it is going to be when players are semi-regularly out of commission for weeks due to contracting the virus. I certainly don’t think we could prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario: that a player or a coach would die as a result of playing games. People as young and in as good of physical condition as professional baseball players are particularly impervious to the effects of COVID-19, but they are not immune. And I don’t think we are ready for the blood on our hands.
In the wake of protests about racial justice, a topic that I, a living example of straight white male privilege, have mostly avoided digging into too deeply on this website, a fair question that has been asked is if “sports is a distraction from the awful things in life” is a noble purpose. Maybe we shouldn’t have a distraction–maybe we should be forced to confront the ills of the world and only then are we entitled to enjoy something as trivial as sports. In the wake of COVID-19, not only would sports almost certainly be a net negative in slowing the transmission of the disease (besides players and personnel traveling, I would imagine they will encourage people to cram into sports bars), but they wouldn’t even serve as a distraction. And every day, we would be forced to confront the harsh reality of the world around us while unable to escape the looming sense that we are responsible for what is happening.
Sports exist purely as entertainment. They contain no inherent societal value. Every new infection that comes as a result of sports opening back up is one that has been deemed by society the cost of entertaining us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t want that on my conscience.
Yesterday, Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle offered up a quote about playing sports in this environment that struck a particular chord with me: “Sports are the reward of a functioning society.” And we as a country have yet to figure out how to handle this. We spent a few months doing a relatively good job of social distancing and enacting common sense preventative controls and we decided that was enough. The United States re-opened well before it had any business doing so, declaring a problem fixed because that was the convenient thing to do. Had we taken the problem seriously from the beginning, we would probably be in a situation similar to where Europe is right now–not totally open, but with cases substantially down and with a path to normalcy clearly established. But we jumped the gun, and now we are going to have to wait longer than we ever expected to have some modicum of routine ever again. And the sooner we begin playing an atypical 2020 season, the longer we will have to wait until we actually return to normal in baseball or in our everyday lives.
Oh, and also, wear a mask. For God’s sake, wear a mask.