In the world of sports, we are in a time without precedent and without a compass. We are lost in the woods, with no idea how to find our way out.
The NBA was the first domino, canceling its season, followed by the NHL, the NCAA’s men’s and women’s March Madness tournaments, Major League Baseball spring training, scouting trips by the NFL, NASCAR, and everybody else. Across the world, India is shutting down cricket while UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) has postponed the 2020 European Football Championship until 2021 and England’s Premier League is closed.
Now is the time for sports-team owners to make good on their assurances that stadiums would help working people, not leave them destitute.
Now we prepare for a life without sports, a stunning development. Sports kept going during two world wars and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Sports have always helped keep up morale and some modicum of normalcy during times of crisis. During the first World War, Woodrow Wilson said, “I hope that sports will be continued as a real contribution to the national defense.” Franklin Roosevelt spoke similarly during World War II.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 infected 500 million people, one-third of the world’s population at the time, and killed an estimated 50 million including 675,000 in the United States. Unlike the coronavirus, high mortality rates occurred in the twenty-to-forty-years-old age range, and officials became wildly concerned, with public gatherings strongly discouraged.
While MLB’s season ended right before the pandemic erupted, the 1918 World Series saw the banning of the “spitball” due to health concerns. And yet, it wasn’t cancelled—despite multiple players dying after contracting the flu, and the famed Babe Ruth contracting it twice.
Even 9/11 only delayed NFL games by one week. This is different because, instead of sports becoming a distraction from national calamity, sports teams could have become a traveling road show of disease clusters, a band of Patient Zeros, traveling from city to city, infecting fans along the way.
This is why it took Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19, and spreading the disease to his All-Star teammate Donovan Mitchell, to wake the sports world up to the reality that it was not immune. In one day, the NBA went from merely saying that players should fist bump instead of high-fiving fans, to shutting the whole multibillion-dollar operation down.
This was the correct decision when it comes to public safety, but it comes with its own set of costs, like the low-wage stadium and arena workers who now have no income at all.
Several players have stepped up—including Zion Williamson, the nineteen-year-old rookie for the New Orleans Pelicans—and pledged to pay the stadium workers out of their own pockets. But it really should be the billionaire owners who step up and offer paid leave to all employees, as a smattering of franchise owners have done.
Most of these teams play in publicly funded sports cathedrals that were built with promises of job creation. It was always a specious argument, since the sports world offers mostly seasonal work. But now is the time for sports-team owners to make good on their assurances that stadiums would help working people, not leave them destitute.
Tony Ressler, the majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks, announced in mid-March that he would guarantee the wages of arena staff. “We have a pretty clear set of priorities in this kind of remarkable time that we’re living through,” Ressler said. “Protecting our fans, protecting our employees, and protecting the reputation of our league, all of which is important. But let there be no confusion: that means taking care of all of our employees, our full-time, our part-time.”
What is truly remarkable and utterly unacceptable is that all franchise owners across sports have not followed suit. These billionaires need to show some sense of responsibility. They should not have to be shamed into doing so.
For now, we do not know how long we will be a world without sports. The best we can do is stay healthy, follow the advice we are getting from trusted sources—that is, not from the President—and wait for the time when we can join together once again in collective joy.
That’s more than sports. That’s just being human. But to experience that once again, we first need to survive.