In the Swedish pop group ABBA’s hit song “Money, Money, Money” the chorus goes “Money, money, money/ Always sunny /In the rich man’s world.”
The group may not have aimed for a social commentary but it affirms what we see today: that one’s world and the sunniness of it is influenced by the money they have. Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc for all, but it is undoubtedly more sunny where there is more money. Actions that figures in the sports industry have taken have highlighted the role of money in light of the circumstances.
Almost immediately after the NBA announced that it would suspend its season, people started asking about the stadium workers — folks who would go weeks or months without working an event and without getting pay. For many, canceling sports meant upending training, cutting short the opportunity to pursue athletic endeavors and saddening fans. But for this select group of individuals, canceling sports meant canceling their jobs and potentially jeopardizing their ability to pay for basic services.
In the days that have followed the announcements, however, we have witnessed a movement of athletes, owners and organizations literally paying the way forward for the folks who make their typical “normal” happen.
What started with Mark Cuban pledging to pay American Airlines Center’s hourly employees for games missed has shifted into a general understanding that stadium workers will be financially taken care of — not only in the NBA, but across all major sports.
If teams haven’t assured their support for hourly arena workers, individual athletes have. Several players, including Kevin Love and Giannis Antetokounmpo, have stepped up to donate large sums of money either directly to stadium workers or to organizations within their communities that are especially in need of funding during this time.
Sporting organizations paying workers who can no longer do their jobs and donating to food banks and other relief funds not only engages in socially responsible business practices but sustains the idea that, in a time of social distancing, we still have community. When cities no longer have their sports teams to rally around, teams are showing they still care for their neighbors by investing in pockets of their communities that desperately need help.
But payments like these have the power to do even more.
Sporting events were canceled about a week before CA Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide shelter-in-place order. The sports industry’s relative early action, albeit by just a few days, had the potential to set a standard for the other nonessential businesses that have been forced to close their doors to customers and employees alike in the past week and a half. Perhaps some of the responses businesses have taken regarding their employees’ compensation have been influenced by the responses from professional sports teams and their players. At the end of the day, teams are still giving us reason to rally behind them even without ongoing play.
But there are negative ramifications that result from differential access to resources between professional athletes and the general public.
As people have flooded Twitter with stories about the lengthy journey to getting tested for COVID-19, or how they were denied testing despite showing concerning symptoms, breaking news alerts have informed us every few days of which asymptomatic NBA players have contracted the virus.
While it’s helpful for the general public to know that one can spread the coronavirus without even knowing they have it, it’s alarming to see the number of high-profile celebrities who are essentially able to skip the line to get tested.
Without Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, sports may have still continued for another week. Packed gatherings happening across the country for seven more days likely could have spread the virus even more. But now that professional sports leagues have all suspended their seasons for now, and everyone is supposed to be self-quarantining anyway, what value are we gaining as a society by testing sports figures over others?
For those who still aren’t taking it seriously, perhaps hearing about Kevin Durant testing positive makes them more likely to follow shelter-in-place orders. Yet for everyone else, each story about a celebrity testing positive is a reminder of the socioeconomic disparities that exist across all aspects of life, with health being no exception. Medical attention and services should not be available for professional athletes or other wealthy citizens before others. The pandemic that we are living in is a public health crisis. Public health is about protecting populations, and this crisis won’t be mitigated by serving the wealthy before others.
While I applaud practices private industries are taking for their employees, use of that same money and status to access differential medical treatment is disconcerting. Professional athletes and organizations can affect so many through their actions. Professional athletes are supporting communities financially, and that is both beautiful and critical, but their other actions ought to match the same intentions. They have the power to truly lead their communities and show they care about them, and that begins with waiting in line.