Despite constantly banging on about the difficulties of the pandemic, professional sports has been completely resilient to it.
Famous athletes get COVID-19 all the time. They disappear for a week or two, and then return. A few come back with stories of being the sickest they’ve ever been. But then they immediately restart doing hard physical labour for a living.
No well-known working pro has succumbed to the disease. None has had his/her career interrupted in any serious way. Even during the most desperate moments in the United States, when thousands of Americans were dying each day, you could turn on the TV and watch live football and basketball.
Watching that, it was hard not to have a secret thought: “Well, how bad can this really be?”
Sports were the first group activity to ramp up again after the closures of spring 2020. Sports created the first template for a “safe” working environment. Sports decided that the early template (i.e. bubbles) was overkill and loosened up before everyone else. Sports had the first entertainment venues to hold crowds again.
For better and worse, no slice of society has done more to make COVID-19 look surmountable than pro sports. It spent a lot of time and energy scolding the rest of us to take COVID-19 seriously, without taking it very seriously itself.
That all stemmed from a (pretty reasonable, as it turns out) feeling of invulnerability on the part of athletes, coupled with the desire to keep making a bunch of money.
That’s why Saturday seemed so surreal. Nearly a year and a half into this thing, we had our first profound, pandemic-related professional setback for a pro athlete.
Down in Dublin, Ohio, the PGA is holding the 2021 Memorial. The grounds are packed. Nobody’s masked. It’s still apocalypse-lite up here, but down there it’s Mardi Gras.
The Memorial is a sort of mini-major. The winner makes US$1.675-million. He also gets a three-year Tour exemption, as opposed to the usual two for winning any PGA event.
Jon Rahm won the Memorial last year. He was winning the Memorial this year. On Saturday, he had a round for the ages – an eight-under 64 that put him six shots into the lead. No tournament is won on a Saturday, but this was close.
At the end, a jubilant Rahm fist-bumped his playing partners. As he walked off the 18th green, he was intercepted by a PGA Tour doctor. He was told he’d tested positive for COVID-19. Rahm dropped his head into his hands and appeared to weep. “Not again,” he said.
As Rahm threaded through the crowd gathered on the 18th, he had to be reminded to put on a mask. His caddy, still unmasked, pushed away the CBS camera trailing them. Because no one knew what was going on, there was confusion on the broadcast.
“Why didn’t CBS get a heads up[?]” TV analyst and former player Nick Faldo tweeted.
Yes, absolutely, why wasn’t a TV network made aware of Rahm’s medical status before Rahm? Who’s driving this clown car anyway?
Faldo’s reaction speaks to the way sports has treated COVID-19 nearly from the beginning. It’s not a health crisis. It’s a plot device.
For just a moment at the start, the players were scared. Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert was sports’ Patient Zero. Once he made it through, the fear started to leak off.
A few more guys got it, and a few more, and it always turned out fine.
Once it became apparent that ultra-fit twenty- and thirtysomethings were unlikely to suffer any serious consequences, they stopped caring all at once.
Positive tests became a gauntlet that teams had to run, like losing streaks or a rash of injuries. When whole baseball and football teams were felled, the story wasn’t, “Will they survive?” It was, “How much of an advantage do you get from getting a couple of weeks off mid-season?”
The raft of positives that preceded the Australian Open created a new online news category – the quarantine whiners of Instagram.
The pandemic is now only remarkable if it injected some drama into tired storylines – such as several members of the Vancouver Canucks falling miserably ill at the end of their miserable season.
No one at the league was all that worried. If they had been, they would have stopped everyone from playing. But it was convenient to seem to be worried.
Once it stopped being convenient, they stopped doing that. For example, it stopped being convenient this week as Canadian and U.S. hockey teams headed toward a playoff intersection.
Lo and behold, on Sunday, Ottawa gave the NHL an exemption to fly back and forth across the border. It’s funny how once the financial will presents itself, the bureaucratic way is never far behind.
The Rahm situation changes that calculus further. Now we have a new wrinkle in the pandemic anthology – the unlucky COVID-19 loser.
You can already see people lining up to shout this one out. It’s got something for everyone – the pandemic shut-ins, the anti-vaxxers, all the haters of authority in all their varied plumage.
It appears Rahm is unvaccinated (because vaccinated players no longer have to go through contact tracing, as Rahm was, or receive weekly testing, as Rahm does). One of the guys who took over the Memorial lead, Patrick Cantlay, let drop in his presser that he isn’t vaxxed.
At this point, could we please be spared all the jibber jabber from leagues and tours about how seriously they take their protocols? Their own people don’t care any more.
On the other side, there were calls to let Rahm complete his fourth round despite having a communicable illness. Why couldn’t he play his final round by himself, some said? Why couldn’t he be his own caddy? Why couldn’t someone push him around the course in an Iron Lung, swinging one-armed from a horizontal position?
This is where the health-and-safety theatre sports has been performing since last fall meets the real world the rest of us have to live in. If they let Rahm off the hook, the whole charade falls apart. They can’t do that. Not yet.
But this is the start of that. The pretense of pretending to really care, with consequences whenever things go wrong, will now begin to peel back in sports.
The rest of us want to get back to some sense of normalcy that still protects the most vulnerable. In sports, it’s been ages since anyone felt vulnerable, and normalcy is rapidly approaching. The events of Saturday will give them a new mission statement: “No More Rahms”.