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THE ONE-SIDED RIVALRY THAT SPORTS CANNOT WIN — VS. COVID-19
The games go on, but vaccine wars — who’s jabbed, who isn’t — likely will determine the Super Bowl champion and results in other leagues, including a non-transparent NBA and virus-clogged NHL
Amid the frantic finishes, parlay plays and ridiculous ratings, the NFL wants us to drink Corona … and ignore the virus part. Keep watching the games. Keep enjoying Tony Romo on the beer commercials. Keep betting as sportsbook heroin is dangled six times a telecast in the faces of 350 million problem gamblers worldwide — via partners Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel, not to forget FOX Bet, BetMGM, PointsBet and WynnBET.
Just keep printing billions for the owners. COVID-19? That’s some newfangled pass-coverage scheme in the minds of power influencers such as Jerry Jones, who was grilled by Bob Costas on HBO and broke his shoulder patting himself on the back. “I’m really proud of what our league, our coaches and players have done in general about having protocols that have limited the COVID,’’ said Jones, still the Dallas Cowboys owner while preparing for his Madame Tussauds wax job. “I think we have a great track record. Matter of fact, I think it’s one of the untold things that we probably ought to talk about is what the NFL is doing in light of leadership in COVID.”
Yet, all you had to do Sunday was take in the season’s most exciting game to date — an exercise in viewer whiplash, with four lead changes in the final 7 1/2 minutes, the Vikings winning 34-31 as time expired — and note the protocol status of the dueling quarterbacks.
That’s when the reality of this already unpredictable, can’t-handle-prosperity season kicked in like a fever, a cough, chills, shortness of breath, a headache, a loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea … and hopefully not persistent pain in the chest, confusion, a problem staying awake, pale lips and blue skin.
The coronavirus will determine which teams reach the Super Bowl, with winter all but upon us, case rates and hospitalizations rising, the championship game still 83 days away in Los Angeles, and Dr. Anthony Fauci emerging from his Epidemiology Over America rock tour to warn, “The unnerving aspect of it is that if you keep the level of dynamics of the virus in the community at a high level — obviously the people who are most most vulnerable are the unvaccinated — but when you have a virus as transmissible as delta, in the context of waning immunity, that dynamic is going to negatively impact even the vaccinated people. So it's a double whammy.’’
He can’t speak the gospel often enough. Because too many people in the NFL, in the $600 billion industry of sports, continue to tune out Fauci and common sense even after COVID-19 has claimed 5.2 million lives on the planet and 770,000 in the U.S.
The loser of a thrilling football game, Aaron Rodgers, is an American lightning rod — or pariah, if you live in enlightened sectors that believe vaccines do help control virus spread and save lives. Once a delightful, smart, savvy and widely admired personality, Rodgers now is a lying creep, having said he was “immunized’’ to skirt league protocols and endanger half the population of Green Bay, Wis. After incurring the wrath of critics ranging from the enlightened (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the outrageous (Howard Stern) to the goofy (Terry Bradshaw) — Stern said: “He’s a f—king liar and he could have destroyed a lot of people. The next time this f—head gets injured on the field, they should bring in Joe Rogan to fix the bones’’ — you’d think Rodgers would stop ignoring Rogan’s quack science and, yeah, just make a vaccine appointment.
But though his con game backfired on the Packers, who lost a game with Jordan Love while COVID-stricken Rodgers was in league-mandated quarantine, he continues to resist even one jab. Imagine if his relentless stupidity haunts his team during Super Bowl week. His positive COVID-19 test and quarantine clears Rodgers from daily testing for 90 days. But he would return to the testing protocols and close contract rules required of unvaccinated players in the week off between the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl.
Another positive test means the reigning league MVP would miss the moment he his craved for 11 years, amid a title drought that caused him to badmouth Packers management last offseason — and Jordan Love starts the big game. When weighing whether to be vaccinated, does Rodgers even think about the disastrous possibilities? And that’s just on the field.
“I don't really like playing the what-if games,’’ he said. ‘’So what I do know is I have more than two months right now where my protocol's not testing every single day. So that's kind of the only thing I'm thinking about. I don't like playing the hypothetical game. Obviously, you'd love to be playing the second weekend in February, and hopefully we're in that position."
At this point, the drama king has moved on to a supposed toe injury, which he says has left him in severe pain. He looked like his normal self in throwing for 385 yards and four touchdowns, but Rodgers insists he injured the toe while in quarantine — but won’t say how, of course. He probably won’t practice until the game that largely determines the fate of 8-3 Green Bay, Sunday at Lambeau Field against the struggling but still formidable (and 7-3) Los Angeles Rams. In the new format of a 17-game regular season with seven conference playoff qualifiers, only the team with the NFC’s best record is awarded a bye with a week off. For now, that team is 9-2 Arizona. Rodgers can do the math, knowing his toe is more vulnerable with news that Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins suffered a season-ending torn ACL. Next man up, unless All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari returns early from his own ACL injury, is No. 3 left tackle Yosh Nijman … against Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Co.
“I’m just going to have to get to the bye and hope I can get some healing over the bye week," Rodgers said. “Probably the same schedule next week. Was in a lot of pain. Went in at halftime early to get it checked out. It's very, very painful. Got stepped on the first half, and that kind of activated all the symptoms I was having. It's going to be another painful week and next week, and then hopefully start to feel a little better on the bye.’’
The winner of that thrilling football game, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, still isn’t vaccinated. He won’t jab up despite landing on the COVID-19 list in August as a close contact. This is a man so averse to vaccines, he actually proposed a locker room arrangement with “literally, Plexiglas around where I sit, so that this (contracting COVID) could never happen again. I’ve thought about it, ‘cause I’m gonna do whatever it takes.’’
Why doesn’t he just, say, seek the vaccine? That way, he protects teammates, coaches and supportive personnel and increases the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs? Nah, Captain Kirk is a COVID-iot, only slightly walking back creepy comments from last year: “I would say I'm gonna go about my daily life. If I get it, I'm gonna ride it out. I'm gonna let nature do its course. Survival-of-the-fittest kind of approach. And just say, if it knocks me out, it knocks me out. I'm going to be OK. You know, even if I die. If I die, I die. I kind of have peace about that.’’
Every week, COVID-19 claims another sports victim and impacts another contender’s season. The Cowboys, now 7-3 in the NFC, were without receiver Amari Cooper in a 19-9 loss in Kansas City. The Los Angeles Chargers waited until game time to see if star edge rusher Joey Bosa, who is unvaccinated, would be available Sunday night for a critical win over Pittsburgh. And when MVP candidate Lamar Jackson, who hasn’t confirmed he is vaccinated after two COVID-19 bouts, missed Sunday’s game in Chicago with a virus reportedly “so bad that he’s simply not himself,’’ did you suspect more hocus-pocus when Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said Jackson’s illness was unrelated to the coronavirus? The Ravens, too, are prime title contenders. Conceivably, they could join the Packers in the Super Bowl … and both superstar QBs could test positive.
What, we shouldn’t be accusing anyone of lying? Make me laugh. Thanks to Rodgers and others, it is established that players (and teams) will be deceptive until they’re caught. And shame on the NBA for its lack of transparency during the Finals last summer, when more than a dozen people linked to the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns tested positive for COVID-19. According to a Rolling Stone report that merits more re-tweeting, there was panic in the Milwaukee ranks when Giannis Antetokounmpo’s brother and teammate, Thanasis, was among the positive cases. To this day, it’s murky whether the two-time MVP was COVID-free when he and the Bucks won the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The big lie told in sports these days is that the coronavirus has been managed and thwarted. Leagues claim as much so people aren’t afraid to attend games and spend money. But have you noticed how easy it is to find good NBA and NHL seats in a sluggish secondary-ticket market?
Speaking of the NHL, another indoor sport in which masks aren’t required, outbreaks are a perpetual concern. The Ottawa Senators, who claim a 100 percent vaccination rate, were put on pause when 40 percent of the roster tested positive. Canada continues to prioritize health over sports, as it should, banning unvaccinated professional athletes from traveling to games in that country starting Jan. 15.
The ongoing transcendent theme in tennis, Novak Djokovic’s quest to win a record 21st Grand Slam title, could be dashed because the world’s top player is an anti-vaxxer. The Australian Open, which begins Jan. 17, won’t allow unvaccinated people on tournament grounds by government decree. “Everyone on site, the fans, all the staff, the players, will need to be vaccinated,’’ tournament chief Craig Tiley said. “There's been a lot of speculation about Novak's position, he's said it's a private matter. We would love to see Novak here, but he knows he needs to be vaccinated in order to play. He's always said that the Australian Open is the event that puts the wind in his sails."
But sporting pursuits, in too many personal cases, are marginalized compared to one’s vaccine beliefs. Human beings are permitted those beliefs, but when they flout the rules of a league and jeopardize the health of other people, they become targets deserving of scorn. In America, as of Monday, 69.8 percent of the total population has had at least one jab and 59.1 percent is fully vaccinated. Three of 10 people in this country are unvaccinated, if not more.
So next time you hear talk about heated rivalries, there is only one as 2022 nears. That would be Sports vs. COVID-19. And the virus not only remains undefeated, but will continue to reign supreme as long as athletes of all pedigrees are among the 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.