“Why should I?” he said.
The big old man bellowed at full Navy volume, “GET OUT OF HERE!”
The barefaced guy got out. Fast. Later, he came back — with a mask.
This little story points in many directions, but one of them troubles me most: America is no longer a team. And it’s killing us. Many of us.
Our clubhouse is so full of feuding, selfishness, team-last egos and backstabbing that we can’t even agree to wear a face mask during a plague. Our fury is so close to the surface that a few words lead to screams. If the world were a sports league, we would be a franchise falling apart fast.
Of course, the world really is a competitive league — but an economic one. In that race, in controlling the novel coronavirus pandemic, we are far behind Asia, where, just to illustrate, Japan and South Korea are playing baseball, and Europe, where elite professional soccer is back in England, Germany, Italy and Spain.
The gap is incredibly embarrassing. If you want to know why, among many more serious American problems, we may have no more Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA or NHL this year, consider Tuesday’s stats. The seven largest countries in the European Union, with a combined population around the same as our 330 million, had about 6 percent as many new coronavirus cases as the United States: 2,074 to 33,730. Texas and California had more than 5,000 new cases each.
In April, the E.U. was just as big a health disaster as America. But the E.U. still operates like a team — one that believes in science and has the discipline to fight together against a pandemic. Now the results are in.
The E.U. is considering banning Americans from going to Europe even after its restrictions on travel lift July 1. For the first time, a continent may be saying: “We don’t want your American tourist dollars. You’re not worth the risk.”
The easy out is to blame politics, especially President Trump and the Republican Party, but it’s a lot more, too. A huge piece of America’s core character — such as our collective intelligence and common sense, our unselfishness and cooperation, our tolerance for our differences — key qualities that made us great, have deteriorated. Is that what decadence looks like in an empire that has passed its peak but doesn’t know it yet?
It’s ironic that, in the capital of politics, Washington sports fans know what teamwork looks like. We have seen how championship teams put their common goals ahead of individual interests. Everyone is allowed their views. The Capitals know Alex Ovechkin is a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not all of them like that, but it never became an issue in their Stanley Cup win in 2018. When the team comes first, you search for ways not to fuss or unravel. You absolutely do not seek reasons to fight.
Right now, the United States wakes up every day ready to brawl — with itself.
Good teams grasp the basic level of putting the team first: “We can’t win unless we all do this.” You either buy in or you go out.
Right now, our country can’t even buy into using masks in situations in which scientists say it will cut the rate of virus transmission by up to 80 percent.
We’re so divided we can’t agree to take one step — just three more feet — between each other when we are in groups. Social distancing — six feet, not three — evidently is just too big a sacrifice.
After the Nationals won the World Series last year, some players accepted an invitation to play golf with President Trump. Other Nats have criticized Trump or his policies. When I went to spring training in February and March, I wondered whether there would be cracks in the team. I didn’t sense any. When winning is the issue, check your race, politics, religion, sexuality and every other darn thing at the door.
Maybe there’s some hope. On Monday afternoon, every member of the NASCAR community marched down an Alabama racetrack behind driver Bubba Wallace, some pushing his car, as everyone cheered. The reason? A noose was found in the garage stall assigned to Wallace’s team, less than two weeks after Wallace, the top-flight Cup Series’ only African American driver and a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter, urged NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from its races, which it did.
Federal investigators concluded Tuesday the noose-like thing had been there for months with no link to Wallace or any hate crime.
So we have doubly good news. No one evidently did anything wrong. But NASCAR’s support of Wallace when it thought he had been targeted will be recalled and admired for years. Every member of NASCAR marched behind Wallace. Not all of them believe everything that he believes.
Now we know what it looks like when Americans, who don’t agree on everything and probably disagree on lots of things, stand together and vow that there are some things we all agree on. NASCAR showed that when an issue is powerful and at the core of our beliefs, we can still act like a team.
Each day, sometimes each week, sports fans discuss when or if our games will return. We ask as if owners, players, unions and deciding medical protocols are the main issues. They are not. The reason that sports are returning in the E.U. and not yet here has nothing to do with any of that.
If you want to know why there might be no MLB or NFL season this year, and the NBA and NHL might not resume, it is for two main reasons. The first is the pandemic. But the second is America’s sickly sense of team.
If we all want to see our country recover — and sports returning is just a small part of that — follow health experts’ guidance on social distancing and crowd sizes. And for all our sake, perform an act so minimal yet as vital as life and death: Wear a mask.