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Dr. Adia Benton is an associate professor of anthropology and African studies at Northwestern University who studies global public health, humanitarian assistance, and professional sports. Her first book was about HIV/AIDS treatment in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She is currently writing a second book about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the near future, she plans to write a book about the business and politics of professional football.
How do you assess the general response of the sports world thus far to the coronavirus?
Epidemics allow us to see existing rifts and inequities in society. The way this plays out in sports is interesting to me, because sporting represents a subset of social relations, of labor relations, as it also reflects some of those larger political concerns that we have in this country—concerns we have globally, really—about race, class, gender, caste, ability, and citizenship/nationality.
It is hard to make a general statement about sports during this epidemic because I think the answer depends on the sport, how it’s organized, and its fan base, which of course, is its economic base. Covid-19 is an occupational hazard for professional athletes and the people who support their work. Physical health is paramount to their performance and success as workers.
I’ll just talk briefly about a few examples. In tennis, the association of tennis professionals and women’s tennis association made the decision to postpone the Indian Wells tournament when there was a confirmed case of Covid-19 near the venue. Yes, it’s disappointing for tennis fans and players alike, but the tennis organizations seemed to already understand how quickly a disease can take out a whole group of workers. Norovirus made a lot of players and support staff sick at the tournament in 2012. The United States Tennis Association has canceled all its sponsored tournaments, but lessons continue, from what I understand.
NCAA Division 1 basketball showed its true colors when it at first announced that players would take the court for march madness and play in empty arenas. Social pressure to close universities to limit the spread of the virus, and a concern about optics, forced the NCAA to cancel the event all together. After all, where is the madness of March madness without the fans? And if they played, would the NCAA have to admit that student-athletes aren’t, first and foremost students?
When you’re talking about professional basketball, you’re talking about a slightly different situation because there are “owners” and a clearer recognition that players are workers. The NFL was to start up again last week. I heard that the NFL executives cancelled their yearly gathering, in light of Covid-19. My guess is that general managers—middle-aged white men—and team owners—mostly older, wealthy white men—were suddenly forced to see themselves as vulnerable to a range of shocks—political, economic, biological—in ways that they had not previously taken into account. Scouts and others who travel for recruitment purposes, were also impacted by travel restrictions. I think they’ve just suspended travel for their teams and cancelled the draft.
So if I had to grade the sports world, i’d have to say different sports organizations received different grades, and their decisions were largely influenced including how value is assessed and who has power in that sport: Put another way, who is considered a worker, a commodity or resource, how is the sport organized professionally, what is the fan base, and so on. Tennis A-, college basketball B-, professional basketball B+, NFL, can I just give them a C for being the NFL? Nah, B/B+. They protect their investments in the short term, I guess.
What was your response when your heard that the Utah Jazz, courtesy of the state of Oklahoma, got 58 Covid-19 tests at a time when barely anyone nationally was being tested?
When I heard about Rudy Gobert’s diagnoses, the first diagnosed case among NBA players, I think, I was a bit stunned. I wondered how he’d been tested under these current conditions of scarcity and test rationing. I joked about it on Twitter, as a way of hinting at the discrepancy in access to diagnostic tests here in the US. Who were they to have received a rapid diagnosis, to have accessed the test at the discretion of team doctors? (FYI, since the case definition changed a couple of weeks ago, technically anyone whose doctor suspects Covid is entitled to the test, but not everyone gets it—even when their doctor suspects a Covid infection.)
As Robert Silverman at The Daily Beast points out, Gobert was tested in Oklahoma on a Wednesday, got results the same day, team doctors halted the game that evening, and nearly 60 other contacts were tested and isolated by Thursday. Multiple teams in the NBA went under isolation as a result of this cluster of cases, and several said they’d secure tests for their teams. But to return to the Oklahoma case, we’re talking about a state that had maximum capacity of processing 100 tests in one day, and had somehow managed to complete what was then the average number of tests per state in the US since the outbreak began, in a six-hour period. Now, how does that look? On one hand, yeah, these are people who came into contact with a known case, so it’s what tests are for, but who, besides the players and team staff, were tested, when we’re talking family members, support workers and so on, who might have also been affected by these exposures? A friend says we’re shifting from #MeToo as a diagnosis of power to #MeFirst, and I tend to agree here.
What message do you have for the International Olympic Committee, which as of this interview—things are moving fast—have not canceled the 2020 Olympics?
I think they’re going to have to really think carefully about this, but I understand the unwillingness to make a decision too early. All the money and preparation will be lost, I suppose. As Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian,
One of the reasons the Olympics feels so inviolable is the immense and unanswerable obstinacy of the Big Sport machine, an animal that must be fed at all times. After all, sport is a business, and business demands certainty, returns, guaranteed windfalls.
Could it be postponed? Will athletes be able to prepare under current conditions in their countries? Qualifying events and tournaments have been postponed or canceled as a result of this outbreak. Is it fair? If anything, the countries with the better resources will always weather this storm and field competitive athletes. But the fact of the matter is, whatever Japan is doing to manage the disease in its midst, the Olympics are by definition global, and is as likely to be an engine for Covid-19.
I know that similar questions arose during the Olympics and World Cup in Brazil around Zika. But Zika is largely vector-borne, and there are a range of precautions available for Zika; it affected women athletes who were hoping to become pregnant, and athlete men with similar reproductive ambitions. A disease like Covid-19, spread by droplets and fomites, requires different precautions. I suspect the events could go on, without fans, to satisfy the demands of not only the capitalist machine but also of the athletes who sacrifice so much to make it to this event. It should probably be canceled, and there would be tremendous fallout. That’s leaving aside the damage the Olympics causes when they do occur. But if recent Olympics are any indication, it likely won’t be canceled. In places where home viewing is common and possible, many of us will be watching events take place in empty stadiums and arenas from the comfort of our quarantined homes.