In response to America’s Games Screech to a Halt
As Jim Geraghty noted, Major League Baseball has suspended spring training, and appears to be leaning towards suspending the start of the regular season. Caution and precaution are appropriate and necessary right now, but canceling regular-season schedules outright is the wrong decision.
The suspension and cancellation of the NBA season, which precipitated both MLB’s action and the NHL suspending its season, is perhaps more understandable after two players on the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. Unlike MLB, the basketball and hockey leagues don’t have the luxury of being in preseason, with time to rearrange plans. Pro tennis and soccer are also suspending action. But other sporting events are, for now, shifting to holding their competitions without fans in the stands. As of now, the NCAA basketball tournament, NASCAR, and the PGA Tour will all go the empty-seats route (although the NCAA is cancelling its conference tournaments).
Continuing to play the games, even in empty stadiums, has risks. But everything has risks. We can’t just completely shut down all life in America waiting to see if the virus wipes us all out. Even under the worst-case projections, most of us will survive this. Even under the best-case projections, most of us will be exposed. Given the impracticality of going to an Italian-style total national lockdown for months on end, we should be practicing caution and reducing unnecessary risks, but also going on with as much of our national life as we can.
Are sports necessary? Strictly speaking, no. But in that sense, much of what makes life worth living is not strictly necessary. We face the possibility that a lot of people will be spending a lot more time at home in the coming months, their interactions with their fellow man reduced. Baseball went on during Reconstruction, the First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the 1989 Bay Area earthquake that interrupted the Giants-A’s World Series, and the aftermath of 9/11. In each case, there were a few interruptions, but both the nation’s leaders and the lords of the game recognized that sports serve a real social purpose as part of our public life.
The risks to MLB’s players, managers, coaches, umpires, and other essential personnel from playing the games in empty stadiums are fairly minimal. Most of the people involved are young and healthy. To reduce unnecessary air travel, the entire sport could temporarily set up shop in Arizona, which has ample spring training facilities and a hot, dry climate. As an economic matter (never a small thing to baseball owners), the TV/radio/streaming revenue from the games should still be more than adequate to turn a profit after paying the participants.
In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter” of January 15, 1942 (five weeks after Pearl Harbor):
[I]t would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.
And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.
Here is another way of looking at it — if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.
True then, true now.