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Sports are essential only in some bizarro millionaire world

John Romano | There is widespread talk of putting athletes back to work. Hopefully, it comes to pass. But sports should be following, not leading America’s recovery.
It's going to be a long time before we see Tropicana Field, or any other stadium, filled with fans again. But before we get too far down the road with talk of bringing sports back in spectator-less arenas, we need to make sure the rest of the country will not be endangered by a thirst for televised games.
It's going to be a long time before we see Tropicana Field, or any other stadium, filled with fans again. But before we get too far down the road with talk of bringing sports back in spectator-less arenas, we need to make sure the rest of the country will not be endangered by a thirst for televised games. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 15, 2020

Fire up the grill, and ice the beer. The games are on their way back!

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis grabbed the wheel of this bandwagon early on by paving the way for live wrestling events to be considered an essential industry, and later talked about the possibility of Major League Baseball and golf events in the state, too. President Trump followed up by talking about games returning while name-dropping sports executives even diehard fans would have a hard time picking out of a crowd. And, in the piece de resistance, America’s favorite pandemic expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, laid out a scenario where sports could return soon in empty arenas.

Good news and good times, eh?

Except it’s not going to be quite that easy. Nor should it be.

If you doubt that, consider the statement Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred provided to Tampa Bay Times baseball writer Marc Topkin late Tuesday night.

“We are appreciative that the governor is open to playing games in Florida as one potential solution," Manfred said, “but we all agree that such efforts can only be undertaken in a manner that does not endanger public health, nor the health of our players and fans."

It was baseball executives who were originally mulling a modified season taking place entirely in isolation in Arizona, or perhaps Arizona and Florida. The plan was mocked by some, and viewed warily by many.

And now, a week later as the tide seems to be turning in favor of return to playing fields, Manfred is preaching patience.

Why?

The commissioner is rightfully, and legitimately, concerned about the health of people in his industry and elsewhere. But it could also be that Manfred was politely telling DeSantis that Major League Baseball will not be used as a canary in the economic coal mine. And it could be that the initial backlash baseball heard last week resonated with Manfred and team owners.

Now, there is certainly a scenario where sports could be staged without fans in attendance in the coming months. Golf, for instance, is typically played largely in silence, and with minimal contact between participants. Auto racing has a similar dynamic. Televised-only golf and auto racing is not going to be all that much different from the real thing.

But the more sports you begin talking about, the more complicated the equation gets. Fauci talked about isolating athletes in hotels and testing them weekly for the coronavirus, which is along the lines of the original Major League Baseball plan.

Most baseball teams have traveling parties of 55-60 people for road trips. Factor in a three-month season in isolation, and that number would likely grow to around 100 players, employees, executives. For 30 teams, that means 3,000 people in hotels. That doesn’t include umpires and other MLB-affiliated workers or TV personnel.

That translates into a lot of hotel rooms, which could be good for a local economy and clearly appealing to a governor. But are the hotel workers isolated, too? If not, there’s some social distancing questions at play.

And in a grander sense, there should not be a single hotel room occupied or a single game played until every health worker in this country has the necessary masks and other safety equipment needed. And there shouldn’t be a single test wasted on thousands of quarantined athletes until every American with a fever or a cough can walk into a clinic and be safely examined.

Are you starting to see the problems here?

Everyone wants their lives to get back to normal. And millions of Americans are desperate to get back to work. The president has warned that the cure cannot be worse than the disease, and there is validity to that concern. A devastated economy could wipe out life savings, and create homeless problems not seen since the Great Depression.

That doesn’t mean we knowingly sacrifice health or lives, but we must find the proper balance between inviting people back to work and school while still practicing smart pandemic controls.

And that’s why sports need to be put in proper perspective. Would live games be good for the country’s morale? Certainly. Would they help kickstart the economy? Potentially.

But if we’re going to start taking calculated risks, I’m not sure the smartest way is by making sure wealthy athletes are getting their paychecks, as well as over-the-top quarantine efforts to protect their health.

Maybe, a month from now, the curve is flattened and supplies are plentiful. It doesn’t mean we let down our guard, but maybe we can start putting plans in place for a slow rollout of some sports. Trust me, no one has missed the Final Four, the Masters, the NHL playoffs or the start of the baseball season more than me.

But, in this case, athletes need to be followers and not leaders. Seeing live sports might give the appearance of normality, but it would be a false impression. We all need to recognize that the re-opening of the country has to be done methodically and with the most vulnerable in mind.

The worst thing we can do is allow the virus an unnecessary opening to re-establish its death grip.

I’ve read too many stories of nurses and doctors dying to unnecessarily put their health in jeopardy because I want to watch a ball game.