Red light: Amid pandemic, sports should be in no rush

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Since 1880, the end of May has been a time for remembrance and baseball. For the last 140 years, the United States’ pastime has honored those who were lost in battle with games and tributes on Memorial Day.

The annual tradition continued through the turbulent merger between the American and National leagues in 1903 and U.S. involvement in World War I in 1917. It braved the 1918 flu outbreak, the most severe worldwide pandemic of the 20th century.

Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, baseball seemed like an unnecessary luxury to government officials as the nation mobilized for conflict. Instead, then-president Franklin Roosevelt personally approved the start of the MLB season. FDR’s message to the commissioner, known as the Green Light Letter, is now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt said in the letter. “If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”

Even when the nation was under threat, one thing was a certainty — there would be baseball on Memorial Day.

Yet all 30 MLB stadiums were silent last Monday, marking the end of a streak that lasted more than a century. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 baseball season has been postponed indefinitely.

Baseball is just one sport that has taken a back seat during a worldwide health crisis. The NBA put its season on immediate pause once Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the disease, while the NCAA called off its annual March Madness tournament. All major European soccer was suspended, with France and Belgium canceling their league fixtures entirely. The only league to resume play thus far is the German Bundesliga, whose first post-quarantine matches were played in empty stadiums May 16.

It is an open secret that leagues want players back on the field quickly in order to limit the financial damage of the pandemic. Initially, the Bundesliga was hesitant to abort matches due to potential losses of about 750 million euros if the last nine games of the season went unplayed. Meanwhile, MLB teams stand to lose big on both ticket sales and television deals if the 2020 season is scrapped entirely. Negotiations between the league and the players association have not yet yielded results.

Athletes such as England national team footballers Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose along with Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell have already spoken out against the haste to restart play. After all, the team owners and executives pushing for a return are not facing the same risks posed by physically being on the field, especially when close contact with others over the course of virtually every sporting event is unavoidable.

Right now, all eyes are on the Bundesliga to see if its current model of social distancing soccer is safe enough to be followed. Substitutes are required to socially distance on the bench, while everyone in the changing room is required to wear masks. The ball is wiped down before each game, and all staff and players must sanitize their hands and have their temperatures checked prior to entering the stadium.

Social distancing does not go hand in hand with most sports, and players have been forced to alter their normal routines during games. In the heat of the moment, though, lapses can happen. Hertha Berlin’s players were warned after they hugged each other during a goal celebration, while angry Schalke players crowded a referee after a contested foul call. A single mistake can lead to serious consequences — perhaps not for the otherwise healthy athletes, but for their families and loved ones who may be more severely affected by the disease.

When it comes to fans attending games in person, there is no reason to be optimistic. Players have the luxury of being tested multiple times per week, but there is no feasible way to ensure that 30,000 fans are accurately tested before they attend a sporting event. With public beaches already packed as some states loosen regulations, how can we allow gatherings of tens of thousands of people within the confines of a stadium? With a vaccine still months away, we need to wait for conclusive proof of immunity — herd or engineered — before readdressing this issue.

Roosevelt was correct when he said sports such as baseball provide tremendous recreational value. From an emotional standpoint, every fan misses them. We want drama, rivalries and garlic fries at the ballpark. We want to sit in the stands and watch history happen.

But at the end of the day, all of that is just recreation. Today, our health care workers fight against an enemy that can only be contained by our collective efforts as responsible Americans. We need to do our part to maintain social distancing precautions and limit our interactions to those who are absolutely essential.

For that reason, sports can — and must — wait.

Chanun Ong covers softball. Contact him at [email protected].