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OLYMPICS ON, PHIL SWARMED, NBA PARTIES — DON’T BE STUPID, SPORTS
Be it staging the Games in virus-ravaged Japan, allowing a dangerous scene for Mickelson’s coronation or NBA players clubbing as big crowds return, the industry must be careful in rushing to normalcy
It happens every weeknight newscast. Proud as a pimpin’ peacock, NBC has a disembodied voice praise the network as America’s most trusted information source. You almost want to bear-hug anchor Lester Holt when he warmly signs off, ‘‘Please take care of yourself … and each other.’’
Yet, only recently, NBCUniversal hosted a public function and completely ignored the state of emergency in Japan. There, less than three percent of the population has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, hospitals are overwhelmed, infection and death rates remain high and, according to a survey, 83 percent of residents — some demonstrating in the streets — want the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled. Why the abrupt disconnect in news-gathering integrity? Seems the corporate suits at NBCUniversal were smooth-selling advertisers during a virtual ‘‘upfronts’’ presentation, gleefully detailing extensive plans to broadcast the Summer Games beginning July 23 — even if the event looms as a potential health catastrophe in a host nation that can’t afford more tragedy.
Not long ago, Japan was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami. It numbs the mind to think the Games could cause more pain and suffering, but, in 2021, the ``Network Of The Olympics’’ has no conscience.
‘‘NBC will be bringing it all to America,’’ proclaimed host Mike Tirico, who every year becomes less a journalist and more a puppet.
This as the State Department warns Americans to avoid all Japan travel, citing virus variants that make even double-vaccinated people vulnerable to infections. Only eight weeks from the scheduled opening ceremony, wouldn’t the advisory unnerve U.S. athletes already debating the point of competing in the most abnormal Olympiad ever staged? The Games are intended as a global festival uniting thousands in the spirit of sport. Tokyo will be the antithesis of that mission statement, with athletes required to reduce time in Japan to an isolated minimum while spectators from all other nations are banned and no one is certain if Japanese bodies will occupy any seats.
The competition will be diluted. The atmosphere will be lifeless. More than 11,000 athletes, only 60 percent vaccinated to date, will be vulnerable to virus outbreaks that could impact tens of thousands of officials, coaches, support staffers and media. Hell, not one karaoke bar is open. But Tirico tells us the Games must go on, and so does NBC’s partner in pandemic crime, the always-trustworthy International Olympic Committee, which ignores travel warnings and simple common sense — how many people might die? — in declaring these Olympics ‘‘absolutely’’ will proceed. With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on record that all Games decisions are made by the IOC, it means Japan basically will be governed this summer by Thomas Bach, the governing body’s president, and Steve Burke, chairman of NBC Universal.
They have billions to protect, you see. Japan is spending more than $25 billion to organize the Games. The IOC depends largely on NBC to fund $4.2 billion in broadcast revenues every four years, which is 75 percent of Bach’s budget. The dominos cannot afford to fall. They’d rather have people die and athletes get sick than lose their windfall, with insurance covering only $3 billion for the government in the event of cancellation.
``The athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. ‘‘We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible,’’ said Bach, coldly referring to Japanese citizens who thought the Games would symbolize a recovery. His comment is juxtaposed against an anti-Games petition signed by more than 300,000 residents, who ask, en masse, ‘‘Are we still going to hold the Tokyo Olympics, even if it puts lives and jobs in danger?’’
The money grab is profoundly rude, insensitive and greedy. Rejecting every morsel of medical logic, including the pleas of 6,000 primary-care doctors to cancel the Games, the alphabet-soup boys are pushing their business-as-usual mandate as if the competition is more important than possible casualties. Said IOC vice president John Coates: ‘‘I know from my own athletes in Australia how appreciative they are of the efforts of the Japanese people to give them the opportunity to live their dream, despite the current situation.’’
At least in the U.S., we can take some comfort that 40 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated and 49 percent have had at least one dose. But herd immunity isn’t happening in our divided land — no longer ‘‘one nation, under God, indivisible’’ — and as long as race and religion forge waves of anti-vaccine pockets, the coronavirus will linger as a national threat. You think Memorial Day weekend is the ultimate re-opening of life? Wait until the new case figures next week.
That’s why I was stunned by the lack of security Sunday at Kiawah Island. PGA Championship organizers were more interested in a classic TV moment — lubed-up loons in the thousands, swallowing Phil Mickelson in his 18th-fairway coronation — than protecting Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and the swarming mobs themselves from injuries and superspreads. Couldn’t officials have waited a year before continuing the tradition of collapsing galleries for monumental golfing moments? At 50, Mickelson became the oldest player to win a major, yet they could have killed him in the process, with a fan seen grabbing him above his shoulders.
‘‘I’ve never had something like that,’’ said Mickelson, who admitted to being ‘‘unnerved’’ and actually pushed the fan away.
Said Koepka: ‘‘It would have been cool if I didn’t have a knee injury and got dinged a few times in the knee in that crowd, because no one gave a shit. But if I was fine, yeah, it would have been cool.”
South Carolina stupidity aside, last weekend felt like the grand reopening of sports in America. Stands are filling again at NBA playoff games, including the 15,000 fans who gathered without masks in Madison Square Garden to support the revived Knicks and heckle Atlanta star Trae Young, who had the last laugh. We still haven’t reached the point of Anything Goes at a sporting event, but to see and hear actual crowd noise in arenas — after the dystopian loneliness of the Bubble — was pulsating and reassuring in a sense. In Philadelphia, where 11,000 watched the 76ers, coach Doc Rivers said, ‘‘It felt like 30,000.’’
In another sense, the NBA’s mad rush to normalcy was disturbing. Paying customers are expected to be responsible, but LeBron James and Kristaps Porzingis ruined the mood by flouting league rules. As it is, James has been negligent in refusing to say if he is vaccinated, which hurts commissioner Adam Silver’s efforts to achieve herd immunity in his league and the nation’s efforts to convince the African-American community to get shots. If James hasn’t had his two arm jabs, why would he attend a promotional event in Los Angeles for a tequila brand he is sponsoring?
He has yet to explain, but the league did cite him for a violation. If he hasn’t been vaccinated, shouldn’t the violation have led to a 10-to-14 day quarantine for James — which would have sunk the Lakers in a Phoenix series they might lose anyway? The NBA added to the confusion by adding this in a statement: ‘‘Vaccinated players are permitted to engage in outside activities." So is LeBron vaccinated? Say something, Mr. Social Crusader.
‘‘`I’ll be ready for Game 2,’’ he said, when asked.
There was no doubt about Porzingis, fined $50,000 for visiting an L.A. strip club last weekend and ignoring an edict prohibiting players from entering ‘‘any bar, club, lounge or similar establishment, regardless of the player’s vaccination status.’’ Yet the league didn’t force him to quarantine, either, saying his club appearance didn’t rise to the level of a spread risk. Why do I gather no NBA player, except maybe the last man on a bench, will miss playoff time for any COVID-related reason? It’s all a smokescreen, like so much else.
I trust the sports industry even less, moving forward, than I did in 2020. I’m not even sure I trust Lester Holt. When he says, ‘‘Please take care of yourself … and each other,’’ do you know where he ripped off the line?
From Jerry Springer. He said it first.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘`the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes regular sports columns and a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and appears on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.