Everybody loves a good comeback story and for a while there, sports was writing a pretty compelling one. Whether it was the NHL and NBA's successful bubble playoffs, a truncated MLB season or launching the latest NFL campaign, it was nice to have something resembling normalcy return to our lives in the middle of a global pandemic.
But have you looked at the scoreboard lately? COVID-19 has come roaring back, kicking butt and taking names on a daily basis.
Canada's world junior hockey team has shut down training camp for at least two weeks after a pair of positive tests. The Baltimore Ravens postponed a U.S. Thanksgiving Day game after an outbreak impacting at least a dozen players and staff. Multiple members of the Vegas Golden Knights and Columbus Blue Jackets have been stricken. Same goes for some U.S. college football, hockey and basketball teams.
It pains me to say this, especially since it goes against my professional interests given what I do for a living, but it's time to throw in the towel and stop what's increasingly becoming a one-sided fight. Not just for the safety of all involved, but also for the dangerous message being sent to the general public at a most important time in this battle, with infection numbers and deaths soaring in most markets, including Manitoba.
In a terrific piece published this week in New York Magazine, Will Leitch wrote that a "casual, almost laissez-faire attitude to COVID in sports" was contributing to how America in general has completely fumbled its handling of the virus, now with a staggering 12.9 million cases and 263,000 deaths south of the border.
"It seems very possible that some of the nationwide insistence among so many people that the virus isn’t that serious, that you’ll likely recover from it if you get it, that you can just move forward without any sort of collective sacrifice, isn’t at least slightly connected to the sports world’s relaxed posture toward the virus and dogged insistence on playing through it," Leitch opined.
"After all, there is an obvious disconnect between 'Don’t travel to see your family on this Thanksgiving unlike any other' and 'There are three NFL games like there always are on Thanksgiving.'"
Only there weren't three games on Thursday, just two, due to a last-minute postponement of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh matchup that would have delivered big in prime-time ratings, given their storied rivalry and the fact the Steelers are 10-0. In that sense, perhaps this should be the canary in the coal mine.
Closer to home, the same could be said of what's happening in Alberta, where a protective bubble environment has been set up for the best teenage hockey players in the world. Where the NHL succeeded in spades this past summer and fall, Hockey Canada has failed. The world junior hockey championship that's set to begin in Edmonton on Christmas Day involving players from 10 different countries could now be in jeopardy, after Canada's team had to shut down training camp in Red Deer after one staff member and two players tested positive for the coronavirus.
But that shouldn't be a huge surprise, given numbers in Alberta are far worse now compared to the summer, and the bubble is not completely foolproof given the number of support personnel (hotel and restaurant staff for example) who are still required to go in and out. All the protocols in the world can't guarantee something that's running rampant in the community won't find a way in.
The same goes for other secure environments that are supposed to be keeping the virus out, but finding it impossible to do so. As we've seen recently in Manitoba, multiple personal care homes and even prisons such as Stony Mountain are experiencing major outbreaks right now.
And if you're not in a bubble — like the NFL currently isn't and the NHL won't be if players and owners can settle their financial differences and chart a course for an abbreviated 2020-21 season that could begin as early as Jan. 1 — then all bets are off and you better prepare for the worst.
Remember when a single case involving Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert put most sports on pause in mid-March? If only we could go back in time to the kind of numbers we had then. Yet here we are, currently in the midst of the worst of it, while sports on both sides of the border keep playing on.
Does that make any sense?
"It was difficult, when my children were staring at their iPads and calling it "virtual school," to see the local high school football team playing games. If we’re supposed to see this all as a national emergency, something we must survive as a country and as a society by hunkering down… why can unpaid college students crash into each other every Saturday in front of 20,000 fans? If they’re not taking it seriously, if they’re not willing to make any sacrifices, why should we?" Leitch wrote.
We've seen plenty of confusing, often contrasting messaging during the pandemic, including local outrage when box stores were initially allowed to keep selling non-essential items while small mom and pop businesses were forced to close their doors.
My 15-year-old daughter, for example, doesn't understand why she keeps going to her Winnipeg high school every second day during this current code red, having close contact with dozens of kids, yet can't go to grandma and grandpa's house for a physically distanced visit. (To be clear, she fully supports the restrictions regarding seeing non-household family members or close friends, as tough as they are; it's the lack of restrictions with regards to her education that are puzzling, to say the least).
I would suggest what's happening in the sports world is also not helping in getting everyone pulling in the same direction.
We know a vaccine is getting closer, so time is hopefully running out on COVID-19. But to borrow an overused cliché, we all need to have our game faces on until that happens.
Nobody loves a tragic story. Which is why sports — like so many other parts of our everyday lives — should be forced to take a temporary timeout.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.