On Sunday, the Denver Broncos played a professional football game without a quarterback, which is a ridiculous thing to do.
Their starter has COVID-19. The three other certified quarterbacks on the Broncos roster spend all their time with the starter, and as a result were put into quarantine as a precautionary measure.
So the Broncos elevated Kendall Hinton, a rookie wide receiver on their practice squad who had never played a professional down, to the spot once occupied by John Elway.
Some version of this is happening somewhere in sports just about every day now. It’s become so unremarkable that when Florida State cancelled a football game because the team they were facing had returned a positive test, the opposing coach, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, essentially called them chicken.
We’ve moved beyond panic and even concern. Football is treating COVID-19 like a skill-testing wrinkle in fantasy-team construction: “Here are three fun holes to plug in your roster.”
So what strikes you about the Broncos’ emergency talent search isn’t that it happened. What stands out is the public reaction: nothing. There was no reaction. At most, it was detached amusement.
Had this mini-outbreak taken place in, say, June, people would have freaked out: “For God’s sake, shut them down!: Somehow, this would have become government’s fault for allowing the teams to play at all.
But now, crickets.
COVID-19 isn’t over. In a worst-case scenario, it’s just hotting up. But COVID-19 as a force capable of significantly distorting the most resilient parts of mainstream culture is done. People have moved on. While expelling a lot of hot air about best practices and “safety first,” big-league sports helped them get there and continue to do so.
For instance, the NBA. No North American league made a greater clamour about getting this thing right and protecting everyone involved (the NHL was a close second).
They bubbled the entire NBA apparatus inside a shuttered amusement park. They came down hard on transgressors (remember the poor scrub who made the mistake of coming out to the curb to collect an UberEats order?). Players and coaches talked so constantly and alarmedly about the pandemic you’d think the league had just signed a sponsorship deal with Pfizer.
When the NBA restarted in late June, the United States was averaging about 40,000 positive coronavirus tests a day.
As they get set to begin the shortened 2020-21 campaign, that number is cresting over 160,000.
But you wouldn’t know it to look at the NBA’s new, somewhat-less-than-airtight approach. There will be no bubble this time around. As many as 10 teams plan to have fans in attendance, which effectively means that every team has fans in attendance.
By the numbers, the situation is more serious now than it was five months ago. But the NBA hasn’t just abandoned the bubble. It is acting as though there was no need for a bubble in the first place. It is postbubble.
Meanwhile, the NBA continues to produce safety manuals the size of phone books (the updated one runs to 134 pages) and talks a great game about safety. In order to protect the common good, everyone who can should stay home and fight this battle from their couch. Except professional athletes. They’ve got Ferraris to buy.
The hypocrisy of sports leagues gets at what has really changed between early summer and now. Most people still believe in strictly following the rules, just not they ones they find personally inconvenient.
I’ll hand it to the NFL – it never bothered pretending to care about COVID-19. It cares about fulfilling TV contracts.
But in its self-appointed role as the most enlightened outfit in sports, the NBA wanted very badly to be seen on the side of the angels. Then the owners went on a free-agent, max-contract signing spree, and playing it safe got knocked a few rungs down the priority list. The NBA has gotten to where the NFL always was: This is about the money and nothing else.
That leaves the NHL in a rough spot. Hockey is just as willing as basketball to compromise its loudly proclaimed principles of six months ago. But it can’t make the numbers work.
The NHL’s TV deals don’t pay enough. The league has apparently only just noticed that. It wants the players to eat a few hundred million more dollars before it will agree to restart the year. The players are disinclined to take a 50-per-cent (or more) pay cut.
We have reached that magical stage in all NHL negotiations where unidentified sources say things such as, “The next week is crucial,” for weeks on end. The odds of getting a season under way in short order shrink daily, further reducing the pot of money everyone’s fighting over.
If this is all bad for hockey’s bottom line, it is at least good for pandemic messaging. Because when everyone’s talking about hockey-related revenue, they are not talking about how the league’s definition of “health and safety” just took a sudden U-turn.
I am neither for nor against the continuation of sports by different means. This is to me very like the endless debate over concussions – once you know the risks, you have assumed them. If the players want to play, then have at it. I’ll save my concern for grocery-store clerks and bartenders – working-class professions whose services I actually can’t live without.
But let’s not pretend that there is no knock-on effect to the way sports have steadily lost interest in treating the pandemic like an actual health crisis. For them, it has became a financial pain in the ass and little else.
While the rest of us are getting exercised over demonstrations by anti-mask weirdos or barbecue anarchists, it might bear mentioning where these people are taking their cues from.
The generalized indifference that makes isolated extremism possible is now everywhere in our society and nowhere more obvious than on your favourite sports channel.