Why Not Bread and Circuses?

Baseball is back, and it’s already making headlines. Basketball is in the Bubble and the Wubble, about to (re)start exhibition play. Soccer’s been on for a while, although on a pay channel, which is either a missed opportunity or where it belongs, depending on how much you like soccer.

It’s Spectacular!

Alyssa Nakken, MLB’s first female assistant coach made an appearance on Monday. Photo by SJ Mercury News.

That’s Spectacular from the Latin word “speculum” meaning something to watch, especially something lavish, eye-raising, or amazing. It can be used negatively, as in “making a spectacle of yourself” or as in trying to divert attention. Right now, we need some diversion, without a summer blockbuster movie or new singing competitions. We’ve always had spectacle, even though the spectacles of yesteryear were different. Verdi’s massive opera Aida, premiered in Cairo in 1871 with hundreds of extras; sometimes it’s even been staged with elephants. I wouldn’t mind seeing some elephants right now, would you?

The Provocative Question of the week is: Have you missed professional and/or college sports since the seasons were either cancelled or suspended in March? How do you feel about the timing of the return of sports, especially given the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, at least in the United States?

Speaking of Elephants…

Since major sports shut down in March, players and owners have flailed away at a plan to reopen. Some of the conversation was productive and some acrimonious: baseball players and owners played chicken over $ until the last possible day that decisions could be made. Neither side was satisfied, but as Opening Day is today, the bitterness is now stowed away for next year, and the pitchers are warming up.

Leagues have had to confront the elephant in the room–Covid-19–which requires physical distancing, masks, and lots of hand sanitizer. The 100+ page protocol books have had to spell out rules for showering (avoid if possible), hand slapping (no), mask-wearing (as much as possible), and spitting (OMG! No). Sports with fewer players–women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball–opted for quarantine. Others, like baseball and football, are trying to avoid outbreaks with a lot of rules. There are pros and cons to devoting society’s resources to such spectacles.

The Case Against Playing

Attitudes about playing have themselves fluctuated like the rollercoaster nature of infection rates. When case numbers started flying upward in June, near the reopening of various training camps, there was a surge of negative articles about playing. Some of that is normal “news,” as the sound byte of “This is a Great Idea!” isn’t as interesting a headline as “These Players Are Doomed!” But discounting the man bites dog nature of reporting, there are valid arguments against the return of organized sports:

  • Players will get sick from playing.
    I am not among the “create herd immunity by everyone getting sick” camp. A perfectly healthy asymptomatic player who gets sick could infect someone who would die. That needs to be avoided; we can agree on that! Also, players in the hiatus who became infected (not from sports) have described a tough road to recovery, so getting sick is not trivial.

    Some have opted out because of the risk. Buster Posey, the MVP catcher and standard bearer for the San Francisco Giants, decided not to play because he and his wife just adopted twins who were born prematurely. Watching them in the hospital neonatal unit probably made his decision easy. The willingness to adopt risk will also be based on the strength and enforcement of the safety protocols, and that may differ widely by sport. (I’m not convinced the NFL is taking it as seriously or that football is possible, given how the sport is played. I think football won’t last the season. )

    Yet many of the leagues are doing what’s necessary to protect everyone (players, coaches, entourages) in the same way that we’ve had to figure out what’s minimally necessary at the grocery store and gas station. A solid testing and quarantine process could reduce risk to almost nothing, and, if it doesn’t, then we have a different problem.

  • The massive sports testing effort is using up scarce testing resources. Our federal government has definitely screwed the pooch on testing. A different type of leadership would have commandeered labs and centralized resources back in March so that, by now, testing capacity would prevent people from having five hour lines and sixteen day waiting periods for results. It is possible to increase capacity. (California went from 2,000 tests a day in March to 100,000 tests per day now.) It’s unconscionable that people are waiting for hours to be tested or weeks for results.

    However, it’s not clear that the solution is redistribution of test resources. Suppose the MLB/NBA/WNBA/NWSL/MLS etc. gave all their testing resources to Texas and Florida. Would that solve the testing problem? Seems unlikely. This is similar to the argument that we should defund the space program because there is child hunger. The problem isn’t resource distribution; the problem is poor management of resources that do exist. You could have a space program and reduce child hunger (via taxing the wealthy). You can have enough tests for the athletes and enough tests for non-athletes if you redirected warehouses, labs, and people out of work to produce testing supplies. The President’s Press Secretary mentioned this week that he’s tested “several times a day”; if that is true, perhaps there’s a place where redistribution can start.

Supposing that testing resources can be managed, there are actually opportunities from rebooting major sports, including the improvement of our understanding of how to reduce the spread of infection. They should play–with restrictions–so we can all learn something.

In the NBA Bubble, reporting from Vanity Fair.com.

Opportunity #1: Demonstrating the Test/Quarantine Process

It might seem absurd that the NBA has $150-$170 million to invest in creating the player Bubble/Wubble for the teams in Orlando. But if an organization with that much money to create a safe space can’t do it, then there’s not much hope for the rest of us. If someone with the funding can work out the safety issues, everyone will benefit from what they learn. When the NBA players first went to Orlando in late June, there were an alarming number of positive tests, which caused many to question its value. But players, coaches, and reporters have since gone through a strict quarantine, and everyone now in the Bubblentsia has good reason not to break the rules (anyone who tests positive has to re-quarantine). With initial scrimmages happening today and all recent tests coming back clean, it’s starting to look that they might pull this off.

The NWSL is at the semifinals of their Challenge Cup already. Photo from the Verge.com.

Meanwhile, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has already been playing for weeks. They opted to work with CBS All Access, so their work hasn’t been broadly televised, but their diehard fans are having a great time. One of the better teams, the Orlando Pride, had to withdraw from play because several players were positive before they started. However, a month into play, the players have now had over 2000 clean tests and are winding up their challenging playoff season. Their fans are ecstatic on social media, and the recent announcement of an expansion team in Los Angeles, bankrolled by Serena Williams and Natalie Portman among others, was met with great fanfare. This might have been the boost that the struggling league needed.

The news out of baseball hasn’t been so shiny. Test delays and attempts to avoid local quarantine or mask rules could suggest that MLB has a rockier road ahead. Exhibition games, though, show most players making a concerted effort at social distancing and safe behavior. If baseball can keep their infection rate super low, the optics of watching famous athletes mask up daily could model behavior that everyone should follow anyway. That would be a free public service announcement on behalf of the CDC.

Giants baseball Exhibition day two. Photo from Daily Democrat.

Opportunity #2: Symbolism and Social Justice

The other big event of the summer–the social justice protests–have become a genie that’s not going back in the bottle. It’s no longer a question, as it was just a few years ago, of whether sporting leagues will “allow” symbolic support for the movement, but in what way. The Orlando basketball stadium floors have been painted with giant “Black Lives Matter” signs. Rumor has it that even the NFL may be allowing players to put social justice-themed decals on their helmets. In the first baseball games, multiple players were taking a knee during the national anthem. The San Francisco Giants have a brand new manager, Gabe Kepler, who attracted the twitter-irritation of the Tested-In-Chief; this will instantly endear him to his new hometown fans. Symbols matter.

Also during Monday’s exhibition game between San Francisco and Oakland, I noticed that the rather slender, masked Giants’ coach at first base, sported a long braid. I hit pause and rewind, then started googling. The cameraman and announcers picked it up a few minutes later and highlighted that Alyssa Nakken, the first ever female MLB coach, was in the game. In March, her hiring was proudly announced but came with the caveat that she probably wouldn’t be in any games because she was too junior. But Covid likely kept a few of the other (60+ year old) coaches home, and she was in. #WholeNewGame!

Opportunity #3: Lively Live Conversation

Not everybody loves sports, I know. Not every baseball game is riveting, either. But one of the things unique to baseball is the local announcing crew, which knows how to be entertaining while the batter steps out of the box or a ball retriever chases down a foul near the dugout. For example, our local pair Krukow and Kuiper mentioned that if they see a brand new player during spring training with no statistics or bio available, they just call him Les Johnson. Les Johnson apparently gets a lot of playing time. Also, they threw in a little COVID humor– Sometimes masks are useful–that ball boy probably doesn’t want anyone to know he just missed the third foul ball in a row–wasn’t me! it was my cousin!

Socially distanced announcers Kruk & Kuip, courtesy of NBC Sports Bay Area.

It won’t be easy for them. They sit far apart in a nearly empty stadium in home games, but won’t even travel for away games, so they’ll call the game from a completely empty stadium. Yet announcers are called on-line talent for a reason. Monday night, they were clearly happy to call the game, and to hear Duane Kuiper’s calm baritone intoning, down and away or and the walk… was a return to normalcy. Frankly, I’m thrilled to hear a live conversation that doesn’t involve discussing the pandemic.

Sports, like the arts, can be both mirror and model. If the Bubble idea works, who might want to see orchestras or rock bands following their lead? What if the NY Met and Opera quarantined for three weeks in order to put on a really Huge show, a fund-raiser for medical workers? Or what about a Battle of the Bands, with the Foo Fighters, the Chili Peppers, and Metallica willing to sit out a quarantine so they can all play together? It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Spectacles might do us a lot of good right now. I say bring on the circus.

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