About a week ago, star pitchers Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard had Tommy John surgeries.
This tells us two things. First, that Major League Baseball has no intention of starting up this summer. Second, that when you’re a pro ballplayer, the usual rules don’t apply to you.
By the time Sale was ready to get his elbow operated on, his specialist in Florida had closed up shop. The state had just ordered its medics to save all supplies for emergency procedures. So Sale had it done in California instead.
It’s not that a 31-year-old bajillionaire who’s having trouble locating his heater got jumped up the queue. That’s not new. It’s that, given recent events, there isn’t supposed to be anyone in the queue.
But there are queues and there are queues. Because there are no more sports being played, sports is now spending its free time reminding the plebs which one they’re all in.
For most of us, the pandemic proper started when Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11 and the NBA immediately suspended its season. Moreso than the news out of China or Italy, that was North America’s alarm bell going off.
Gobert’s misfortune was one of those good bad things. Sports had performed a public service.
But since then, sports has been having trouble on the messaging front.
As the panic escalated, athletes began testing positive left and right. That got people wondering – how were incredibly fit 20-somethings so easily accessing COVID-19 test kits when grammy and gramps had to wait?
It took teams days to realize they ought to stop announcing whenever their players or staff had been given the all-clear. Clearly, whole clumps of them had been mass-tested whether they had symptoms or not.
But the impression had already seeped in – one reality for them; another for the rest of us.
This was ever the case. Either money or fame are great if you like getting what you want, but money times fame is something else entirely. Once you figure out that equation, your life becomes a downhill slope.
We’ve always cheered athletes for lording this over the rest of us. Nobody gave them anything, we told ourselves. They earned it. Plus, their system of rewards is transparent.
So what if a guy who wears his pyjamas to work where he throws a ball real hard makes US$30-million a year? Cool. Good on him.
All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem quite so cool. Not when the economy is deep-diving into Great Depression territory and all of your favourite bartenders are out of work forever.
In the interest of sanity, I have forsworn most breaking news. But I cannot help myself from reading every story about billionaires hiding on their 400-foot lifeboats or all the Richie Riches pouring into the woods to escape the squalor of the city.
The difference between us and them is no longer one vacation a year versus four. We’ve all become that person who is trying to figure out if we know a guy who knows a guy, just in case.
Pros know a guy. They know lots of guys. And those guys are happy to hurry over with a swab package or a private jet.
I am a long way from poor, but I have never felt less rich than I do at the moment. Because now it actually matters.
Pros and team owners haven’t adjusted to their new place in the shifting moral order. When they wander out into public in a formal setting, they talk about re-starting seasons that will never re-start. Sports leagues and the White House – they are the last two entities who still talk about this as though we’ll be holed up for weeks rather than months.
In informal settings such as social media, players devoted a few days to reminding us to stay home. But now they’re bored and have started worrying about money.
Major leagues are in the midst of negotiating who owes what to whom. “Force majeure” is getting a workout on Google. NHL and NBA teams keep a portion of player salaries in escrow to guard against slowdowns, but that won’t be enough to cover the current shortfall. And what happens if next season is scrubbed as well? You can feel the fight coming.
It’s already kicked off in Britain. A government minister’s suggestion that Premier League players “take a pay cut and play their part” was not exactly received in the spirit of civic sacrifice.
A bunch of soccer players fired back along the lines that – as Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend put it – athletes are an “easy target.”
A month ago, that sort of but-what-about-ism when it comes to the 1 per cent being 1-per-centy might’ve worked. ‘You don’t like me because I own a Ferrari? Is that it? You’re a Ferrari bigot? I’ll have you know my poolboy is Italian.’
But now the answer to the easy-target argument is, ‘Yes. You are easy and we are angry. That’s why we’ve targeted you.’
The ultra-rich have had an especially good time of it these past few decades. Not only did they get to be wealthy, they were congratulated for showing off about it. Call that the Kardashian effect, back when the rubes believed they might get there some day, too. All they needed was a lot of exposure and very little dignity.
But give it a few months. No one is going to believe that any more. They’ll be too busy worrying about the rent.
This moment is especially fraught for athletes because their salaries are published in the newspaper. It’s going to be hard to play man-of-the-people when a quarter of your fanbase is out of work and you’re getting $40-million to catch a ball.
Were I a multimillionaire sportsman or woman right now I’d be going the Drew Brees route – either donating a substantial sum (so nothing short of seven figures) or putting my hand up to take a massive pay cut (that all of them can easily afford). I’d be shedding money as quickly as possible in favour of charity and good works.
Because while the North American public may not yet be eating the rich, they have begun nibbling on them to see how they taste.
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