SPORTS CONTINUES TO LIVE IN A WARPED PARALLEL UNIVERSE
Omicron rages worldwide, but you'd never know it watching the ignorant march of America's leagues, led by Aaron Rodgers — imagine if he tests positive before Super Bowl LVI — and Kyrie Irving
The President of the United States commanded the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers "to get the vaccine.'' Aaron Rodgers does not listen to Joe Biden, only to Joe Rogan. He has not been vaccinated, despite the Omicron surge, and the next time he's scheduled to be tested for COVID-19 — days before the Super Bowl — it's possible the NFC-leading Packers will be preparing for the game.
Meaning: Rodgers, gunning for his second consecutive league MVP award, realistically could test positive and bastardize the big game.
The nation's leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, established guidelines Sunday for Americans to follow at the holidays. "If you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted, and you take care when you go into congregate settings like airports to make sure you continually wear your mask, you should be OK,” he said on NBC's "Meet The Press.'' Yet, about 100 million Americans still aren't fully vaccinated, and of those who are, only 18 percent have received a booster.
Meaning: The odds are disturbingly high that stadiums and arenas — ''congregate settings'' jammed with tens of thousands of unmasked fans — are petri dishes for superspreads.
The chump vying with Rodgers for Sports COVID-iot Of The Pandemic, Kyrie Irving, has rejoined the Brooklyn Nets as a part-time player. Never mind that he remains an anti-vaxxer who continues to ignore New York City's vaccine mandate, which will limit his availability to road games in cities that don't have mandates. Never mind that Nets owner Joe Tsai wanted no part of Irving just a few weeks ago, when he said, "It is just not tenable for us to have a team with a player that comes in and out, no home games, only away games.'' Never mind that the Nets have been slammed, like many NBA teams, with a COVID-19 outbreak that forced postponements of their next two games and threatens a Christmas Day game against the similarly slammed Los Angeles Lakers. Never mind that Irving risks contracting a serious infection and could infect his teammates and other personnel, regardless of vaccination status.
Meaning: The Nets are so desperate that they're accommodating Irving, a franchise-wrecker as it is, knowing he could sabotage their season and the superstar who has carried them through their virus challenges, Kevin Durant, himself in protocols for the third time.
Omicron rages. Omicron disrupts the world. Omicron invites more lockdowns. Omicron messes with our travel. Omicron forces office closures. Omicron sends universities back to remote classes. Omicron shuts down Broadway shows, nearly cancels "Saturday Night Live.'' The coronavirus has no interest in vacating its role as the devil on Earth.
But sports trudges on regardless, in an intelligence-insulting parallel universe, hellbent on navigating its power-and-greed machine through medical logic and common sense. The NFL doesn't even care anymore that asymptomatic vaccinated players still can spread the coronavirus. Otherwise, the league wouldn't have scaled back its protocols, no longer requiring players to be tested regularly unless they show symptoms or have been exposed. In a decision that invites players to lie about their health, the league is providing home testing kits to "identify and self-report a possible infection before entering the (team) facility.''
Oh, sure, with the playoffs ahead and championship dreams dancing, do you really think a player with a headache or fever — or worse — would use his trusty test kit and miss a game or two? This is the league's shifty way of avoiding long lists of players in COVID protocols and, thus, more game postponements as the biggest games and TV audiences await. "I would not describe it as, we're stopping testing,'' said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer. "We're just trying to test smarter and in a more strategic fashion.''
Smarter for the bottom line, that is. Not for the health of players, coaches, personnel and their families — at the holidays, no less.
Wouldn't a problem child with a fake vaccination card deserve a league ban, if not federal prosecution? One would think. But Antonio Brown will return this week for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' encore title run, with Mike Edwards, after each served a three-game suspension. "We look forward to having them back with the team," general manager Jason Licht said Sunday without elaborating. At a time when the NFL should be tightening its leadership belt, the new attitude is laissez-faire — too big to care.
Roger Goodell's saving grace, as commissioner, is that football is played outdoors. The NBA continues to postpone games in clusters and lose star players and head coaches to protocols — Trea Young and Frank Vogel on Sunday — and the league is reliving its chaos of two seasons ago. More than 15 percent of rostered players are in protocols, and the Christmas Day games are threatened. As frazzled teams sign players off the street, commissioner Adam Silver faces two crises — competitive integrity, consumer fraud — in passing off makeshift, diluted rosters as world-class entertainment.
"We're not invincible,'' said Steph Curry, who only seems invincible as basketball's reigning showman. "The odds are likely that you'll be affected at some point. … It's just a matter of making the right decisions, having the right protocols in response when it does happen.''
Nothing defines the league's dlsarray more than the pipedream of Irving, the crackpot who still believes the world is flat, somehow saving the Nets. They signed him to lead the fast break, but he's more likely to trigger an outbreak. "It's something to consider,'' said coach Steve Nash, a realist. "Having said that, he's a young man in great health. I think the odds of him having something catastrophic happen are small, but yeah, this virus concerns me in every corner and aspect of its short life so far. That's a concern, but it's also a concern for the vaccinated as well.''
Exactly … with Irving as the spreader.
At least general manager Sean Marks acknowledges the indignity of it all: Amid a killer pandemic, his basketball team is trying to win a title, as if it's an important endeavor. "Our objective is to win,'' he said. "We’re sitting here faced with a roster that has been decimated. I’m forced to make decisions. In essence, this is the best decision for this team at this juncture, with what we’re dealing with. I don’t know any of us would have predicted where we would be standing right now, what we would be facing. Not only the Brooklyn Nets but the larger society in whole. So I think it’s a little bit of, let’s navigate what’s going on in front of us, then let’s look at what happens in a week, two weeks, a month, two months and just see where the team is at that point. But we’re going into this, going to embrace Ky and get him back in the fold here.”
The NHL is close to a full-scale league pause, with nine franchises in shutdown mode. More than 45 games have been postponed, with about 80 players believed to be in protocol. "It may take periods where we’re in now, where we have to step back,” said Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney, whose team is among those in limbo. "Our intention is to play a full season and follow best practices. That will take adaptability.'' Forget about NHL players in the Olympics — and the International Olympic Committee should take it as a bigger hint. But in cahoots with China, the IOC and NBC won't let COVID shut down the Winter Games after those bedfellows money-grabbed their way through Tokyo.
There is no shame in shutting down. The diehards and gamblers won't agree, but America doesn't need sports — especially when the industry continues to send mixed messages that only remind us of the corporate hubris. After the Packers survived a late Baltimore gamble Sunday and improved to 11-3, Rodgers limped gingerly on his purportedly broken pinky toe and did his obligatory post-game chat on Fox. He had thrown three more touchdown passes, 442 for his career, tying him with Brett Favre on the team's all-time list — a record that should go down, dreamily, on a frigid Christmas Day at Lambeau Field.
Then, the unvaccinated quarterback hugged the interviewer, Erin Andrews, a cancer survivor who didn't lean in. You don't think the hug was orchestrated by this calculating dude? Wasn't it just a few months ago when he spilled his guts to Andrews about his offseason drama, all but confirming this would be his final season in Green Bay? Now, he was all grins, praising coach Matt LaFleur and seemingly happy to be a Packer despite his disdain for general manager Brian Gutekunst.
"You have to savor these a little bit," Rodgers said after clinching a third straight NFC North title under LaFleur. "These are special. It's just the first step in our goals, but a lot of times the 'coach speak' — I'm not saying that Matt did this — but a lot of times there might be 'coach speak' that takes over and says, 'Hey, you know this is just one goal and we have bigger goals and stuff,' but I think it's important to keep that perspective on how special accomplishing this is three years in a row. So just enjoy it, savor these moments. These are special moments.
"Happy as well,'' he said, knowing the approaching story line, "that I can hopefully break (Favre's record) at home in front of our fans."
Imagine if Aaron Rodgers wins the MVP award, leads the Packers to the Super Bowl, then isolates by his lonesome as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs win the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
QB Quarantine, we'd call him.
And the all-time COVID-iot.
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.