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  • Trevor Goldstein

It Is Not Ethical to Play Professional Sports in America Right Now

When practically every sports league across the globe shutdown in mid-March as a response to the spread of Covid-19, fans across the world were saddened, but knew that their favorite teams would return to the court, field, pitch, etc. when affairs were more controlled. And in many countries this is how it happened. The Korean Baseball League (KBO) returned in the first week of May. European soccer leagues quickly followed suit, starting with the German Bundesliga, and now the Champions and Europa League are set to resume in August -- meaning international travel, something Americans cannot even fathom. UFC has created Fight Island, which is the new life of a popular tourist destination in the United Arab Emirates. And in the USA, both MLS and the NWSL have resumed, to varying levels of success. The NWSL is enjoying record ratings and the soccer has been very high quality as well. Its male counterpart has not fared as well. The MLS is Back tournament has just begun, and ratings have been great, but both FC Dallas and expansion franchise Nashville SC have been forced to withdraw due to coronavirus positive tests in their camp right before the tournament began.


This here highlights the difference between America resuming sports and the rest of the world resuming sports. The difference is America has recorded a record number of positive coronavirus cases literally yesterday, while our European and Asian counterparts have the situation under control as possible. To make matters worse, both MLS and the NBA, which had their players move into the 'bubble' this past week, are playing their games in Florida, which just today had the most positive cases of coronavirus for any state in a single day since the pandemic reached US soil. Of course, when the plans were cemented back in mid-June Florida was not the coronavirus capital of the world. However, Florida's leaders lackadaisical attitude towards the closing of their state amid the pandemic meant one could have seen this coming. But this same attitude is why the NBA was allowed to come to Florida in the first place, so it is hard to find a solution that was better and allowed. The risk of continuing the season in Florida is extremely high, and there is a relatively high chance that something goes wrong. Just today, a highly anticipated game in the MLS is Back Tournament between D.C. United and Toronto FC was postponed because a player on D.C. tested positive and a player on Toronto tested inconclusive. A follow-up test revealed both players were actually negative, so crisis avoided, but this is another example of just how quickly the whole plan can unravel.


But with this anecdote, we see the not-so-secret genius of the bubble plans. If no athletes or staff leaves the bubble, it should be impossible for them to contract the virus, and for this theory to provide actual piece of mind, players are tested every other day. However, this is where the real ethical issues begin. The NBA has used Quest Diagnostics as their preferred vendor of tests. However, because America is so greatly struggling with a sharp rise in cases, more and more regular folk like you and me are being tested daily. In an article published by NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh, he notes, "Quest stated a recent surge in demand for coronavirus testing had caused delays in processing, with 4-6 day average turnarounds on COVID-19 tests for populations that do not fall into their “Priority 1” group. That group includes “hospital patients, pre-operative patients in acute care settings and symptomatic healthcare workers.” Average turnarounds for Priority 1 would be one day, the lab company said." Athletes, regardless of how important the public views them, simply are not a priority 1 group, but they need test results do return within 24 hours or else the whole operation can be put into jeopardy. Due to this, the NBA has begun to use BioReference to administer tests as they do not have the same priority restrictions, but they are experiencing similar delays in returning test results. Testing is the centerpiece of the bubble plan and without quick and accurate tests everything is in jeopardy before the play even starts.


To get back to the title, continuing these seasons and starting new ones, such as the MLB, is unethical because they require stealing rapid coronavirus testing from everyday Americans who are not privileged to be the best athletes on the globe. If America had done a better job containing the outbreak over the past couple of months this would not be an issue. League executives were banking on this for their leagues to resume play. Sadly, America as a nation so far has failed to make containing Covid-19 a reality.


I am aware that there are a lot of ramifications for failing to complete a professional season of basketball or baseball that could harm the league down the road, due to agreements in the CBAs of these leagues, lost television revenue (creating broken contracts), and even the legacies of players (read LeBron James) being tampered with. It is hard to know for sure how a failure to complete this season will affect the future of these leagues, and I do not want to find out, but when the variables in play are the way they are right now, there is certainly a possibility of this outcome even with closed bubbles and rapid testing. I also realize that even if professional sport leagues all of the sudden stopped getting rapid testing, there is a possibility that Americans would not get their tests back any faster. This would then make a re-cancellation of the season merely symbolic. However, the only way to find out the answer to this hypothetical is to try it.


I am all for putting athletes on a pedestal under normal circumstances, as they provide priceless benefits to their communities, but when these communities are being hindered by athletes getting special medical attention, the purpose of sport gets defeated. I know it is too late to stop the seasons from beginning or resuming at this point, and I will watch them because I am powerless to stop it and also a hypocrite, but this is the time for America to reevaluate our priorities and our ethical standing as a country.

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CONTACT: ilr.sbs@cornell.edu