[There’s a lot happening in and around the world of sports these days. So for my annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of such issues. Leading up to a special weekend post on the genuinely revolutionary possibilities of sports!]
On playing and watching sports during a pandemic, past and present.
I’ve thought about the 1919 Black Sox scandal a number of times, including in that hyperlinked blog post and in my multiple viewings of John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), but somehow I’ve never before realized (not until I started thinking about the subject of this blog post, anyway) that that infamous World Series took place at the heart of the influenza pandemic. The Wikipedia page on the scandal even notes that one of the players who was not part of the fix, pitcher Red Faber, “could not pitch [game one] due to a bout with the flu,” but doesn’t note the striking historical context for that individual illness. And I do think it’s a pretty significant historical context—if we agree with the thesis of Sayles’ film, that the White Sox players were exploited by owner Charles Comiskey (or, perhaps more accurately, that all major league baseball players were at least somewhat exploited in that era of precious few labor protections), it seems certain that the fraught reality of playing during a deadly pandemic would have only exacerbated that dynamic.
Of course professional baseball players and professional athletes in general in 2020-21 have far greater labor protections (and proportionally much higher salaries, although still somewhat less so for the journeymen making the league minimum than for the highest-paid stars), but the single biggest sports story of the last year nonetheless remains that of athletes being forced to play during a deadly pandemic. “Forced” is of course a complex term, since both professional and college athletes (on whom more later in the week) had the choice to opt out of their respective sports and seasons. But when the leagues decided (in negotiations with the players’ unions) to play, they did so knowing that the majority of players would take part and would thus be far more likely to get COVID than they otherwise might have been. And in the case of baseball, at least one team, the St. Louis Cardinals, did indeed experience a COVID outbreak that affected a large number of its players (other players and teams were also affected, but the Cardinals were especially devastated), with potential long-term physical and medical effects about which we still don’t know nearly enough.
Knowing all of that, what do I do with the fact that my sons and I still watched the MLB playoffs (among many other sporting events during this past year)? Compared to 1919 (when I’m pretty sure the stands were full for those World Series games), we’ve generally gotten better at understanding the social and medical realities and limiting the number of fans in attendance at games. But if we watch on TV—as the boys and I have done with all those 2020-21 sporting events—we’re still supporting the sports leagues, giving our money to them in one way or another, and at least not challenging in any way the fraught decision to play sports during the pandemic. None of that has led us to stop watching, though (not professional sports, anyway—college is a bit of a different story and I’ll have more to say on that later in the week). I don’t have a grand final conclusion about those contradictory thoughts—just a recognition of the complexities of playing and watching sports during a pandemic (and a request, as ever, to hear your own thoughts on these topics).
Next SportsStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Aspects of sports in 2021 you’d emphasize?