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HELPLESS AGAINST COVID-19, BIG SPORTS SHOULD SHUT DOWN
In the interest of public health, leagues and networks must stop prioritizing their money train and consider the sweeping consequences if the Omicron variant decimates seasons at alarming rates
Isn't it time to send everyone home? Close the facilities? Padlock the stadiums and arenas? Shut down the sportsbooks and apps? Refund the ticket money? Make the networks turn to cartoons and evangelism, easy transitions with Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless around?
Isn't it time to place Big Sports — the $600 billion industry that still doesn't regard the pandemic as a killer of millions, the God-complex-driven machine that won't acknowledge COVID-19's flies-on-manure persistence in 2020s life — into its own indefinite quarantine?
If sports is supposed to teach lessons and provide leadership and guidance amid adversity, well, shouldn't it bear the responsibility of shutting down for a period and doing its part to prevent coronavirus spread? Or will the arrogant money grab just carry on, with the owners and commissioners pretending the Omicron mutation is just another ass pimple, oblivious to the surge of cases and hospitalizations and deaths around them, merely accepting the hourly churn of outbreaks and game postponements and canceled routines as business as usual?
You know the answer to that, courtesy of Roger Goodell.
"Everyone has a little pandemic fatigue," said the NFL commissioner, when asked about the importance of mandating boosters for players.
Big Sports, as always, is too big to care. In tandem with Big Media, Big Sports is too big to pause a season, cancel the Super Bowl or tell China to shove its Winter Olympics. Big Sports is generating too many mega-billions and attracting too many viewers to consider prioritizing health over hubris, to consider revising its playbook. But that shouldn't preclude loud warnings, from more awake and less financially invested sectors, that Big Sports is so hellbent on bulldozing though the latest, highly contagious strain that the industry just might superspread itself into a COVID stupor.
Never has it seemed more inappropriate — or absurd — to continue our fun and games as winter brings another wave of disruption and hell. Never has an NBA game, an NHL game or even a late-season NFL game been less relevant to what we're trying to do our every waking day: stay healthy and alive. Never has it seemed more risky to keep jamming tens of thousands of bodies into seats, especially indoors, to watch athletes who are testing positive now in staggering numbers that recall the early fears of Bubble Ball.
The difference, one would think, is that most athletes are vaccinated, the leagues claim. But does it matter when many with double doses are testing positive as breakthrough cases? Every athlete and person linked to a league or franchise — and every spectator walking though a gate — should be required to have a booster shot. As the epidemiological rock star, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said this week: "Our booster vaccine regimens work against Omicron.'' But when Goodell shows no interest in extra protection and stubbornly rebuffs the NFL Players Association's cries for daily testing, the two-dose vaccines are being compromised by Omicron. The athletes are too young and virile to end up in intensive care, in most instances. But too many are missing games and practices, forced into isolation for days if not weeks, throwing seasons into disarray and diluting competitive balance.
Why should we give a jab about sports if a game comes down to which team is more/less impacted by COVID? In any sensible world, the outbreak-battered Cleveland Browns would not be hosting the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday. But Goodell, convinced his league is impenetrable, didn't even discuss the logic of a postponement. It stands to reason that the seven NFL teams currently in expanded protocols — including the surging Los Angeles Rams, who are eyeing a Super Bowl in their home stadium — are damaged goods at this point? Doesn't the constant threat of diminishment turn off the fans? Reduce the importance of a season to the results of lab tests? The Chicago Bears, who don't have a head coach as is it, might be down all three coordinators and numerous players Monday night. The game goes on, says Goodell. And we're still gobsmacked by the specter of anti-vaxxer crackpot Aaron Rodgers, who doesn't have to submit to testing until after the NFC championship game, sabotaging a Green Bay title with a positive test in the week before the Super Bowl.
Even certain NFL honchos are creeped out. "It seems like it's never going away,'' New York Giants co-owner John Mara said.
"I’m definitely concerned," Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy told the Washington Post. "I think a lot of it has to probably be explained (by) it’s getting colder. We’re around the holidays. But the numbers the last couple days is a real concern.''
At least the NFL has a two-season track record, as an outdoor sport, of marching though seasons and weathering storms. Still, why does Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield not have better sense than to attend a charity event for kids days before testing positive — when teammate Kareem Jackson did a similar appearance via Zoom? "Just something that I felt like was the right thing to do under the circumstances in which this thing is spiking,” Jackson said. 'It wasn’t a controlled environment. I had a lot of kids that were going to be there. I’m not sure if everybody was vaccinated or in masks, so I just decided not to put myself in that situation and obviously come back into work and risk spreading the virus or anything.” For every Jackson in sports, there is a Mayfield.
The NBA and NHL are venturing into more dangerous territory. Yet, despite a flurry of game postponements and star players placed in health and safety protocols, the official response for now is only to enhance those protocols. In the NBA, where more than eight percent of players are in isolation (and counting), it means they can't play for 10 days unless they return two negative tests at least 24 hours apart. Have the commissioners given a thought to the paying customers — the money they've invested in tickets, the health risks they're assuming in arenas? So much for the hard-working father who bought tickets for his children to see Giannis Antetokounmpo? Or James Harden, much less anti-vaxxer Kyrie Irving, whose boycott continues? "We haven't been able to do anything at all,'' said coach Billy Donovan, whose Chicago Bulls have been shut down all week amid two canceled games after 10 players were forced into isolation. Thursday brought another NBA outbreak: the Sacramento Kings. Who's next? You'll probably be able to lay money via DraftKings.
"I feel like it’s kinda the norm now. You never know who’s gonna play or not,” Toronto Raptors star Pascal Siakam said. "Just wake up in the morning and someone’s in safety protocol … When it feels like we kind of have it under control, (COVID) is never really under control.''
"I’ve got a feeling we may go back to some of the stuff we did last year, which was clearly no fun,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. "But we got through the season, so I guess that’s the sacrifice. If that’s what we have to do, we have to do it.''
Do they? Why do they HAVE to do it?
To keep the monster paychecks coming in? To keep the machine whirring? Yep, that's pretty much the answer from all of Big Sports, on every level, from the pro leagues to the teams preparing for the College Football Playoff. And that's pretty much the answer from the broadcast networks paying the whopper bills, including NBC, which wouldn't even consider pulling out of the Beijing Olympics in protest of China's human rights abuses — let alone for superspreader worries. Anyone consider how the Chinese government will counter when athletes from the U.S. and other countries test positive? How about post-Games quarantines that last much longer than 10 days?
Broadway has no problem keeping its priorities straight. Wednesday night brought an unprecedented rush of show cancellations in New York, from "Hamilton'' to "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.'' The theater industry wants optimum safety for the actors, the customers.
Not Big Sports. Get out of here with this COVID thing, the fat cats say. What are 1,200 deaths a day in the U.S.? What are 800,000-plus deaths in two years? What are more than 50 million cases?
Come on. It's the flu, they whisper. "Everyone has a little pandemic fatigue,'' said Goodell, who has been paid $128 million in salary those two years, in an ignorant comment worth repeating.
Spoken like a man with a God complex, echoing the thoughts of too many billionaire COVID-iots.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.