The six-month mark came and went with hardly any notice, but it did come and go. It’s now been more than half a year since Rudy Gobert, days after jokingly touching all the microphones at a press conference, tested positive for COVID-19 and effectively shut down the sports world.
If you’d said then that six months later, we’d be watching the tail end of reorganized NBA and NHL playoffs, the stretch run of a truncated baseball season, and the NFL kicking off in mostly empty stadiums, it would have been believable. Put sports on pause, get the virus under control, and pick things back up with some extra precautions in place to guard against a second wave of outbreaks.
Except, we never got the virus under control. The last day with fewer than 20,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the United States was June 15, and the last day under 10,000 was March 24. At least 200 people in America have died from this virus every day since March 25, and the total death toll in this country is on the verge of hitting 200,000.
The virus situation is worse than when sports stopped, but sports came back anyway. Because those TV contracts are big money and athletes are like everyone else in not wanting to be cooped up at home. And the government, characteristic of a failed response to the pandemic, encouraged it, both to satisfy corporate interests and to serve as a distraction for the masses.
That brings us to now, and the Big Ten, forever torn between wanting to be seen as a pillar of academic integrity and a powerhouse of athletics. Having put off athletics for this fall, the conference now may be ready to announce the return of football... unless it isn’t.
It doesn’t really matter. The fact that the conversation is happening, that sports are just plowing ahead all over America, shows just how thoroughly divorced from reality we are, in the country with, by far, the most total cases of coronavirus and the most total deaths from a disease that the president knew in February was airborne and deadly. The same president now holds indoor rallies in flagrant violation of local health ordinances because there’s not a single piece of law or common sense that Donald Trump won’t flush down his golden toilet.
We’ve sadly gotten used to the law being plainly disregarded when doing so serves the interests of the powerful, but the demise of any sort of sense is a whole other kind of galling.
The Big Ten has schools in 11 states. All except Northwestern are public universities. Here’s the last date that each Big Ten state recorded fewer than 100 new cases of COVID-19.
Illinois: March 17
Iowa: June 3
Indiana: March 23
Maryland: March 25
Michigan: June 15
Minnesota: Sept. 6
Nebraska: Sept. 13
New Jersey: Aug. 15
Ohio: March 23
Pennsylvania: March 20
Wisconsin: April 13
Lest anyone believe that Minnesota and Nebraska really have things under control here, those dips below triple-digits are pretty clearly the result of lagging reporting on weekends. Even in Iowa’s case, that June 3 date that featured 60 new positives was followed by 695 on June 4, which together make for a daily average of 377. That’s right in line with where Iowa was at that time — below the 397 cases that were reported in the state on Monday of this week.
But this isn’t just about the Big Ten. Sports continue all over America without regard for reality, even when reality encroaches upon the field of play.
Take Monday’s doubleheader of seven-inning pandemicball games between the Mariners and A’s in Seattle, where the air quality was at “very unhealthy” levels, and Oakland pitcher Jesus Luzardo said, “I’m a healthy 22-year-old. I shouldn’t be gasping for air or missing oxygen. I’ll leave it at that.”
Except, don’t leave it at that. Playing those games in Seattle, because Major League Baseball is doing all it can to push through this farce of a season before a second wave of coronavirus hits — again, as if we’ve ever gotten past the first wave — is ludicrous and another sign of how far gone we are when it comes to the connection between circumstances and action.
In 2003, the Monday Night Football game between the Chargers and Dolphins was moved to Arizona because of fires in the San Diego area.
“Clearly the priority in San Diego is on health and public safety, not playing football, and we certainly understand that,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said at the time.
Does anyone understand that now? Or are baseball players, team staff, media, and everyone else who needs to go to the ballpark for A’s-Mariners games exempt from consideration of health and public safety?
Of course, if you can play through a pandemic and constantly expose everyone to hazardous conditions, what’s a little smoke? Or a lot of smoke? Where does it stop?
UPDATE: The Mariners finally postponed their two-game series on Tuesday and Wednesday against the Giants, because, as team president Kevin Mather explained, “the air quality in Seattle has gotten worse overnight … and it is not clearing at all today.”
The AQI in Seattle was 241 on Tuesday, up from 220 on Monday, still in the Very Unhealthy range, but yes, slightly more so.
“As always, the health and safety of the players, and our staff is our first priority,” Mather said.
We all learned 24 hours earlier that wasn’t true, but this is 2020, where the truth and observable reality have no bearing on people’s actions.
A couple of weeks ago, sports ground to a halt again as players went on strike in the name of racial justice. “WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” LeBron James tweeted. But there wasn’t enough appetite to call off the season entirely, and now here we are with the Los Angeles sheriff calling on James to put up reward money in the case of two L.A. County deputies being shot. James has been in Orlando for two months, and now waits with the Lakers to start the Western Conference Finals in the bubble there.
To be fair, the bubble setup has been successful, as there hasn’t been a massive outbreak of coronavirus ravaging the NBA. The lesson to be learned from that is taking extensive precautions works. Instead, the takeaway we’ve gotten has been to muddle through it all, as the pandemic continues to rage, the fires continue to burn, and the police continue to murder innocent people with no consequences other than their city making a settlement and a slap on the wrist for the officers involved in the “officer-involved shooting,” a weasel term as distant from reality as most of what we’re seeing in sports.