Major League Soccer and the NHL suspended their seasons. Major League Baseball canceled the rest of spring training and delayed Opening Day. The dominoes of American sports kept falling.
And who were the canaries in the coal mine as the coronavirus metastasized in sports? Black athletes: Gobert, Mitchell and, afterward, the handful of other NBA players who tested positive for the virus. Some went unidentified, so it can’t be said all were black. But three-quarters of the league’s talent is black. You do the extrapolation.
Similarly, upward of 70 percent of the NFL’s athletic labor is black. Yet President Trump, who upon coming into office consistently expressed disdain for black players who protested on the field against unchecked police lethality against men like them, reportedly said in a recent conference call with league commissioners that the NFL should open as scheduled in September.
Major college football is upward of 60 percent black. Yet Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy and Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney argued in recent days that their games should proceed as usual because the college athletic industrial complex needs them and, Gundy added, the athletes are supermen who can withstand the virus.
The first utterance underscored the human girders that college football players, particularly the dominant black stars, are to the multibillion-dollar sport for which they are inequitably remunerated and by which they are vastly exploited. The latter belief stood to exacerbate a myth birthed in black communities that we are somehow immune to catching this illness despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Data mined recently showed black people in particular and people of color in general are getting struck by the coronavirus at rates disproportionately higher than everyone else. It is amazing that some in the black community forgot this bromide: “When white folks catch a cold, black people get pneumonia.”
Black athletes don’t deserve to be subjected to some sort of 21st-century Tuskegee experiment to restart our games before epidemiologists and virologists — not Trump, league commissioners or team owners — deem it absolutely safe to do so. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently affirmed, after a couple of French doctors suggested testing a vaccine on Africans, we are not the world’s guinea pigs. And that goes for sports leagues, too.
“If ever NCAA sports is going to treat players like people rather than property,” Ramogi Huma, head of the National College Players Association, which defends college athletes’ limited rights, said the other day of college sports’ intentions to resume, “it should absolutely be during this crisis.”
Huma called on college athletics’ governors to relax their reins on athletes from working and immediately earning income from their name, image and likeness, given that many of them are facing the same hardships as other college students but aren’t eligible for the same relief, such as unemployment benefits. They could lose health care if they are at an institution so hard hit by the pandemic’s fallout that their scholarships are reduced or eliminated. Huma’s call also could be made of any rush to kick off college football, which is fueled by reported average profits of $1.5 billion on total annual revenue of $2.7 billion for the sport’s 25 most valuable teams, before the players’ health is absolutely secure.
It is unclear whether sports fans will even want to fill stadiums and arenas for games until a vaccine is available. Are the concerns of the athletes, whom those fans would turn out to watch, not to be considered? Is this ancient Rome and our place of play the primal Colosseum?
“I’ve personally been thinking about, when they try to bring us back, I won’t be around until I know all the proper precautions are taken,” Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills told me via text message Friday. “Everyone we come across needs to be tested. Until then, I don’t see how they can have us working.”
Stills’s resistance undoubtedly is the kind all leagues would face en masse from the players’ unions.
Baseball — where players of color now make up more than a third of rosters — floated the trial balloon of playing games at spring training facilities in Arizona, sans fans. Serie A soccer tried that in Italy in early March. It lasted until players throughout the league, including on superstar Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus team, tested positive. The league shut down.
Eireann Dolan, the wife of Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, wondered on Twitter about the morality of the scheme baseball was considering, given reports that players, coaches and staff would be sequestered to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“Y’all asking them to stay at their current salaries but also stay locked inside Baseball Biodome for an indefinite amount of time away from their families during a GD pandemic?” she tweeted. “This is a reckless and irresponsible kernel of an idea. Shut it down.”
And that was before Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo revealed that a team employee tested positive for the coronavirus. If there is one thing we have learned about this infection in recent weeks, it’s that all it takes is one. And that one, even though Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) was slow to learn, doesn’t even have to exhibit symptoms.
Who among us doesn’t want to get back to a pre-coronavirus life as quickly as possible? What, other than a pharmaceutical prophylactic to protect us from this virus, would be more soothing to the national psyche than the ability to linger at an event that forever brought us together in times of strife, such as our old national pastime of baseball or the national religion of football?
But no one is worth sacrificing for our return to some normalcy.