SALT LAKE CITY — Opening day offered a beacon of hope that despite the raging pandemic, perhaps Americans could enjoy a simple pleasure like baseball again. And who better to throw out the season’s inaugural ceremonial first pitch than Dr. Anthony Fauci?

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases offered heft to the moment, when it seemed like fighting COVID-19 and playing sports could coexist.

But even as Fauci took the mound, decked out in Nationals gear and a red face mask, questions about the health, ethics and practicality of bringing back the national pastime simmered in a cauldron of societal uncertainty. So perhaps it was appropriate that Fauci threw up a 50 Cent-esque toss that would have been juuuuust a bit outside — had it been some 15 feet closer to crossing the plate.

In hindsight, that pitch set the stage for baseball’s opening weekend, as the glorious return soon fizzled into disaster.

The Miami Marlins became the epicenter of a virus outbreak that shook the sport this week, with 17 players and coaches (so far) testing positive. Their season is now paused for at least a week, with scheduling changes happening on the fly.

“Maybe this is the slap in the face, the slap of reality, that every league commissioner in America has needed,” Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote opined. “Because maybe this is when the perils of playing in a pandemic begin to seem more and more like, well, like insanity.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that it happened to a team from Florida, where the MLS, NBA and WNBA have each fashioned quarantined “bubbles” for their teams to play in, where players and journalists are monitored and tested to protect against COVID-19.

Florida is also home to two MLB teams, three NFL franchises, and 13 NCAA Division I athletics programs, all poised to forge ahead — even though University of Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin announced on July 14 that he tested positive for the virus, along with 29 of the school’s athletes. 

All this is happening while Florida struggles to get a handle on what has become a global epicenter for the novel coronavirus. Testing delays continue to hobble the state’s response, even as daily cases regularly exceed 10,000. Florida now trails only California in total number of coronavirus cases, and its per-capita infection rate is 1.7-times higher.

That juxtaposition reveals that bringing spectator sports back to a country unable to control a pandemic isn’t as simple as leagues willing it so.

“Sports are the result of a healthy and functioning society,” New York Daily News columnist Jane McManus wrote on Twitter back on June 20. “We just aren’t there right now, as much as some want to ignore that reality.”

The immediate future of American sports looks murky at best — and callous, shortsighted and irresponsible at worst. Which raises the questions of why there’s such a rush to start up again, and whether the country ought to be playing games while a national tragedy spirals.

A surprising conversation

How could we even think about sports, diverting attention and resources to anything other than pandemic response? Because sports are valuable.

Arizona State philosophy lecturer Shawn Klein has explored their power — specifically for spectators — on his blog, The Sports Ethicist. He explains that sports appeal to fans on two levels. The first is escapism — “the least-important aspect of why we watch sport.” But the main reason is their liveness. “Sports unfold before us,” he writes. Unlike an anticipated TV show, games do not have predetermined outcomes. They change in real time, making spectators feel close to the action even if they’re watching from far away. 

“This is something almost totally unique to sport,” Klein continued. “It is this liveness, this being a part of it through witnessing it, that is so much a part of the value of watching sport.”

This encourages fierce loyalty and devotion, making fans eager for their teams to return — perhaps even more so in times of great difficulty, when comforts are rare. But despite the undeniable sway of sports for both athletes and fans, an ethical question remains. “How can we best reduce the overall harm that might be done by this virus,” Klein explained, “without causing worse problems elsewhere?”

Beyond fluctuations in testing and cases, other variables also influence the equation. Like fan attendance. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, ranted on Twitter about fans returning to USL Championship games. “There are low-risk and high-risk activities,” he said. “Essential and nonessential. Fans in the stands is high-risk and nonessential. It ain’t rocket science.”

Money also matters. “They’re not necessarily invested in or interested in the welfare of people more generally,” Northwestern cultural anthropologist Adia Benton said of sports leagues, “and if they are interested in the welfare of the workers, then it’s only insofar as they’re able to be productive.”

Which makes sense right now, to an extent. “You’re in crisis mode,” said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State. “You’re trying to get back to something closely resembling what it used to be so that people don’t lose their jobs. I understand that.”

She also understands the allure of sports, having competed as a distance runner in college. But with the pandemic raging, she wants to slow down the blitz toward “normal.” To shift the conversation from how to get sports back to whether we should — and whether something good can perhaps emerge as a result of such a conversation.

Palettes of N95 respirator masks are off-loaded from the New England Patriots football team’s customized Boeing 767 jet on the tarmac, Thursday, April 2, 2020, at Boston Logan International Airport in Boston, after returning from China. The Kraft family deployed the Patriots’ team plane to China to fetch more than 1 million masks for use by front-line health care workers to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. | Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via AP, Pool

The college calculus

On June 26, Morehouse College, a historically Black institution in Atlanta, announced the cancelation of fall sports. Two weeks later, the Centennial Conference canceled fall sports for its member schools, too. Followed by the Ivy League a day later, followed by the Big Ten moving to a conference-only schedule later that day. 

College sports continue to change plans at an exponential rate. Why are they different from the pros?

Before becoming a college athlete advocacy attorney, Tim Nevius was an NCAA investigator. He traveled the country snuffing out impermissible benefits and eligibility violations. But he never busted any school for violating rules about health or safety. 

“The fact is the NCAA does not enforce health and safety policies,” he said before correcting himself. “In fact, they have very few health and safety policies. Mostly they’re just guidelines, and they don’t enforce them.”

Athletic departments, conferences and the NCAA, he said, are simply not set up for safety. A few have even asked athletes to sign waivers, absolving the school of any liability should a player get sick after returning to campus at the school’s demand. “They’re essentially shifting responsibility for that decision to the athletes,” Nevius said, “which is just despicable.” 

And there’s no real alternative to campus. Bubbles would be impractical at this level. 

“College sports occur in the context of a college, where a lot of people live in close proximity to one another and interact a lot,” Binney, the Emory epidemiologist, said. “That is — unfortunately, I’m afraid — a recipe for COVID-19 outbreaks.”

Clemson, Ohio State and North Carolina-Chapel Hill have already fallen victim. Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College, isn’t surprised. “It’s very difficult for me to see the NCAA, or the other college governing bodies, successfully managing the risks of an incredibly complex pandemic,” she said, “when they haven’t yet succeeded in preventing all these cases of heatstroke.”

Even athletics administrators aren’t blind to the daunting task of hosting sports. NCAA President Mark Emmert is skeptical about playing in fall. Utah schools aren’t sure, either.

“Every day, it seemed to get to, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to push back to normal,’” said Todd Brown, deputy AD at Southern Utah University. “But the closer you try and get to normal, the further away you realize it probably is.”

Especially with a lack of centralized protocols. Each school is largely left on its own to figure out how to combat the virus’ spread. Some athletes, like football players at UCLA, have rebelled, demanding additional protection. Others, not so much. “They want to play,” Jackson said. “I get that. But they’re also kind of at the mercy of these schools.”

A TV cameraman walks among cutout pictures of fans during the seventh inning of an opening day baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Los Angeles. | Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

‘The seduction of capital’

The return of sports was once viewed as a symbol of the country’s success in overcoming the virus and a signal that things were going to be OK. That view has changed. 

“The return of sports was supposed to be a triumphant thing to show how we’d overcome the issues in front of us,” McManus said — perhaps prophetically, since she did so weeks before Fauci’s first pitch. “And I really think it’s doing quite the opposite.”

Like many, she felt optimism back in March. She’s covered sports since 1997, and she knows their power. “But over the years, “ she admitted, “I have become quite cynical about how leagues will respond.” Pressured by politics and financial demands, she’s observed that sports leagues rarely act in the best interest of fans or even athletes. Still, if there were ever a time for sports leagues to do something impactful, this was it. Sports can be powerful during difficult times — like then-President George W. Bush’s ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium to mark baseball’s return after 9/11.

“Imagine,” she said, “if back in March, all the leagues had gotten together to do a PSA saying we’ve got to stay home and take care of each other. I really did think there was a lot of potential power in a conversation that could be had.”

But that conversation never happened. Instead, the leagues reacted like everyone else: with confusion, acceptance and eventually, manufactured normality. Benton did a Q&A back in mid-March where she proclaimed, “We will get our sports back when we deserve to.” Do we deserve to have them now?

“My sense is that the seduction of capital is so great — I think it’s too great. And there is a desire to consume sports,” Benton said. “They’re hoping that peoples’ love for, or need for, or addiction to sports will actually help to support the industry. That’s ultimately what it’s about.”

Indeed, expert after expert pointed to financial motivation as the fuel for sports’ revival — whether in college or the pros. 

“The money has always been the focus,” Jackson said of college sports, “and all decision-making, at the end of the day, is driven by money.”

“They want money,” Binney added of professional sports. “It’s a financial issue.”

He clarified that he would never attack the “average Joe” sports fan who wants to go to a ballgame. “It’s probably coming from a place of frustration, and a strong desire to get back to normal and do the things that they love,” he said. But teams are willing to exploit that natural impulse, even if the near-universal public health opinion opposes fans at sporting events. “With the right plan, I think you can craft it so that it does not pose an unacceptable risk to players, staff or public health,” Binney continued. “But when you start talking about adding fans, now the benefit is really just economic.”

Cutouts occupy some of the stadium seats before a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. | Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

A chance for change?

On June 23, Jackson published a column in the Boston Globe titled “Cancel the fall college football season.” The column wasn’t focused on the pandemic; instead, it lambasted big-time intercollegiate athletics, urging schools to “stop fighting to preserve a rotten model.” 

The idea had fermented for Jackson since 2014, a year that echoed many of the same conversations and problems that are surfacing now, from protests in Ferguson, Missouri, to Senate Commerce Committee hearings about the future of college sports. George Floyd’s killing and the uncertainty surrounding the NCAA’s coming season helped her to put those thoughts into words.

“I’m not a hater,” she said. “College sports is a good thing. But it concerns me that we aren’t thinking about how to do it more responsibly.”

Benton echoed Jackson’s thinking. As an anthropologist, she’s interested in how sports are organized economically and politically, and what they say about their surrounding environment. For example, she wonders what it is about our society that makes football so lucrative and popular. So when she said we’d “get what we deserve” regarding the return of sports, she meant the pandemic would expose existing flaws.

“A lot of us have been complicit in these exploitative systems,” she said. “And I think they start much earlier than professional sports. That would be college sports, or even those pay-to-play youth leagues. But we all sort of explain it away by saying, ‘Oh, these guys get paid so much money.’” Which, of course, some do. But like Jackson, she wants more people to question whether that justifies everything else about American sports in their current form.

Florida’s sports bubbles offer an example of Benton’s critique. While testing delays hamper virus mitigation for the general public, sports reveal that widespread testing and isolation is possible — for those important or wealthy enough. “All of these kinds of resources and things that are hoarded by this sort of sport elite,” she said, “or whatever kinds of inequalities that make that sporting elite possible — those inequalities are playing out right now.”

As a public health expert, Bachynski shares those concerns, and worries about messaging. “Particularly in states like Florida and Texas and Arizona, where we’re seeing quite a lot of community transmission and significant spikes in cases — we’re seeing that there’s limited testing available,” she said. “So I think the negative symbolic power there is very real.”

Yet the desire for sports persists. Just ask McManus, an outspoken critic of the return, if she plans to watch baseball. 

“Yes I will,” she said immediately. She loves baseball, and she — like so many other fans — craves its comfort. But she also knows that this is an unusually challenging time — a tragedy of generational proportion. Even 9/11 only shuttered baseball for six days. So with more time to think more deeply about the question, she yielded to the shadow shrouding it. “I just don’t know that it can be done safely in this country.” 

The pull is real but the comfort is cold; a slick red paint job on a car without an engine. McManus doesn’t have an answer for those competing forces. “As a society, that’s our big question,” she said. “Is it worth it for a game?”