If you were paying attention to the news yesterday afternoon and evening you saw, in the space of just a few hours:
- The NCAA announce that its tournament would be played without fans;
- The President announcing a travel ban from an entire continent, leading to chaos and confusion;
- An NBA player being diagnosed with COVID-19, causing the immediate cancelling of his game, the quarantining of his teammates and opponents and, a few minutes later, the indefinite suspension of the entire NBA season;
- News that America’s most beloved actor and his wife were diagnosed with COVID-19; and
- The largest state in the country recommending the suspension of gatherings of 250 people or more.
Now, to be sure, the speed of news in the social media age can be fast and that speed often distorts that news, making insignificant things seem greater than they are major things seem deceptively benign. Our current informational zeitgeist can lead to undue panic or sensationalism. It can also lead to important things being glossed over or missed entirely. It’s important not to get caught up in the sexy and crazy stuff lest you miss the bigger picture.
At present, as it relates to COVID-19, I believe our informational zeitgeist is, actually, causing us to downplay the seriousness of the situation, with the anecdotal or insignificant aspects of all of this — Tom Hanks’ health, President Trump’s mannerisms during a speech, a viral video of an NBA player, well, spreading his virus — overshadowing the more substantive information. The high profile things are not going unnoticed but stuff like numbers, basic, critical but dry information, and recommendations from relatively anonymous health experts which do not lend itself as easily to 21st century media tropes are being lost in the noise.
That substantive information is sobering: As of yesterday there are more than 125,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with more than 4,600 deaths. Those numbers are considered by experts to be a mere fraction of actual cases and deaths given that testing for COVID-19 — especially in the United States — has not even scratched the surface of what is deemed necessary or adequate. Earlier this week Congress’ in-house doctor told Capitol Hill staffers at a close-door meeting that he expects 70-150 million people in the U.S. — roughly a third of the country — to contract the coronavirus. Which, given even conservative estimates of the fatality rate, could mean millions dead in this country alone. The World Health Organization has declared coronavirus a global pandemic.
Against that backdrop, the sorts of measures we have seen taken in the past week by business and government — things like mass cancellations of public events, school closings, and orders for people to work remotely, which have been characterized as “overreactions” by some — make a great deal of sense. There is a sort of sentiment out there that doing such things is demoralizing or defeatist and that, in the interests of pride and national morale, we should not give in to the impulse to postpone or cancel large events, but such criticisms are off-base. This is not about standing up to a bully or negotiating with terrorists. It’s about dealing with a virus. A virus that will not be impressed by performative determination. It will infect and kill people no matter how stiff our upper lip. It really does not care.
So far Major League Baseball’s response to COVID-19 has been decidedly passive. At present, MLB apparently believes it can simply react to event bans and recommendations passed by state and local governments in a piecemeal fashion, relocating games to areas it believes are not affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as need be. Given the speed of developments and the projections of experts, it doesn’t seem like a safe assumption. Baseball may have the luxury of there being two weeks before Opening Day, thereby giving it more time to plan, but the underlying assumption that it can still proceed with the season as normal seems like wishful thinking at best. Indeed, each day this approach continues, it seems more and more like denial.
And that’s before you talk about the fact that spring training is proceeding as normal. Proceeding, it seems, under the assumption that Florida and Arizona are safe. That itself is not a safe assumption given that there have already been a couple dozen diagnosis of COVID-19 in Florida and at least two fatalities. That’s not at all a safe assumption given that the vast majority of spring training attendees are people who travel from out of state, see games, and them go back home. That’s not at all a safe assumption given how fast things changed with the NBA last night and given just how little testing has been done overall. All of that aside, MLB’s current tack of waiting for state and local officials for guidance would seem ill-equipped for Florida and Arizona given how critical spring training is to their economies. No, I do not believe that government officials would callously and intentionally put tourist dollars ahead of public safety. But I do think that they are human and that Upton Sinclair was on to something when he said “it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Which brings us back to Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball. Given the severity of the situation unfolding, their wait-and-see approach is profoundly lacking. Given the speed of events, it seems hopelessly naive to assume that they can continue to spin plates and reschedule games to areas they believe will be safe from COVID-19 two or three weeks in the future, let alone beyond that. It is likewise insensitive to basically everyone connected, directly or otherwise, to the putting on of major league baseball games. The players. Their families. Team staff. Stadium staff and vendors. Fans. People in charge of crowd control outside of ballparks. Many more people you can name. These people are already dealing with the same stresses everyone else is but, at the moment, they are also dealing with greater uncertainty because their industry has not taken anything close to decisive action.
There is also the less important but still notable fact that Major League Baseball’s current approach could, quite conceivably, lead to competitive integrity issues. Say the COVID-19 outbreak does hit one or two areas — say, California or the northeast — harder than elsewhere and 6-8 teams end up being modern versions of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, playing weeks and weeks of road games or neutral location games far from home, all while their families are back home. Is that good for baseball? Is that good for the people who play it and who are directly affected by it? Of course not.
While it might have made some sense a few days ago for Major League Baseball to take a wait-and-see approach or to, possibly, provide for the playing of games without fans, the speed and nature of events unfolding at the moment render either approach insufficient in our view. We believe that, in the interests of coherence, compassion, prudence and basic public safety, Major League Baseball should act promptly and decisively to postpone the beginning of the Major League season. How long such a postponement should be can be best determined in conjunction with public health officials, but it strikes me that an announcement that a two week postponement and a process of reassessing in the interim would make sense.
Whatever the specifics are, it’s time for Rob Manfred to put an end to his unfocused and reactive approach and make a call that, whatever it means for Major League Baseball’s bottom line, is the right call for public health, public safety and the greater good.