Trump’s Call to Sports Commissioners Shows Everything Wrong With Our Pandemic Response

It’s been said time and again: The virus makes the timeline, not we humans. We will return to being a functioning society when the threat of the novel coronavirus has passed. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that, but when leaders spread false hope, they create expectations that can’t be met and increase our collective ignorance.

That hasn’t stopped Donald Trump. The president and a select group of the most powerful commissioners in sports got together on a conference call on Sunday, on which Trump declared that the sports world would relaunch “sooner rather than later.” ESPN NFL reporter and access merchant Adam Schefter was out at the head of the line, breathlessly tweeting, “In conference call with major league sports commissioners on Saturday, President Donald Trump said he believes the NFL season should start on time in September.”

All the sports websites soon quoted Trump extensively from his press briefing/campaign rally later in the day, saying, “I want fans back in the arenas I think it’s…whenever we’re ready. As soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful fresh air.”

Trump, as ESPN pointed out, also tweeted at Little League baseball players, telling them that their season would start “soon.”

This scenario accurately modeled how sports journalism often works: You get access to information in return for not writing too critically about your subject matter. Most of the time, it’s largely harmless, just the way the “toy department” of the media world goes about its business. In the context of a coronavirus pandemic, the attitude of Trump’s phone call to commissioners—which grossly excluded National Women’s Soccer League commish Lisa Baird—is negligent, if not deadly.

First and foremost, it sets the expectation that the virus will somehow be finished on the schedule yearned for by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Trump’s fall reelection schedule. This is not based on science, only on the profit-driven will of the multibillion-dollar athletic-industrial complex to keep the trains running on time.

Secondly, it blithely ignores the question of player and fan safety. The leagues cannot come back before the health of everyone can be safely secured. Former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt said that a veteran NFL player called him up and asked this salient question: “If they tell us we’re playing again, even without fans, do we have to play? What if our personal doctor advises against it?” It speaks volumes that on Trump’s call of the commissioners, none of the sports unions were represented. If player safety is going to be ignored, the last people one would want on the call would be the people charged with defending those players and their right to play their sport without being sacrificed to this pandemic.

I communicated with both the National Football League Players Association and the National Basketball Players Association about the question of player safety and the rush to return. The NFLPA made clear that it is monitoring this situation very closely, with the safety of players being of the utmost concern.

Michele Roberts of the NBPA e-mailed me, “Our players are super eager to get back on the court. They love basketball, love playing basketball and love bringing the competition to our fans. These preceding weeks have been tough. That said, as members of the community, our players, too, appreciate that the most important goal for our country is to assure the health and safety of its citizens. Yes, they are anxious to resume play. However, only under circumstances that are safe for them, team staff and the communities in which any games would be scheduled. We are optimistic, but patient. Safety first.”

In so many respects, Trump’s cavalier attitude about resuming pro sports reflects his approach to the entire virus. He’s pushing a great deal of false hope, not backed by science, and designed more to win a news cycle with thoughts of a Sugarcandy Mountain of sports constructed on the backs of our disposable athletic heroes. It also reflected through our sports media the ways in which the mainstream media, with some notable exceptions, have failed to hold this president to account.

If there is one sport that’s still on TV, it’s Trump’s Lucy pulling the football away from the media’s Charlie Brown, who marvels over Trump’s change of tone only to see him mock a senator in coronavirus quarantine or reminisce over his days of “dating” models, all while thousands die.

The sports media could play a critical role right now holding Trump and the sports commissioners to account, making sure they don’t put out outlandish predictions about the resumption of play or offer players as a sacrifice to our entertainment appetites. They failed that test yesterday.

We can be better than the White House press corps, call out the lies, and make sure that sports will return when our society returns. The virus sets the timeline. If that’s not our lodestar, then we are lost.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com