Sitting in witness over the last few months while COVID-19 has swamped the United States and made our political, economic and medical structures squirm under its thumb, gasping for air and begging for mercy, I have wondered what it would be like to live in a functional country, one with a robust democracy and a sense of civic decorum that might, for instance, compel most people to wear masks in public.
Why is it that Canada is able to declare traveling bands of superspreading baseball players off-limits, while the U.S. can’t even keep Disney World closed?
This weekend, I got my answer. Days before Major League Baseball’s much-delayed Opening Day on Thursday, Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced that the government thought it too risky to let ballplayers cross from the U.S. into his country and that, therefore, games wouldn’t be taking place north of the border. It was a profound contrast. The U.S. has decided to let COVID-19 run wild in service of marginal economic gains; Canada, which has a semblance of an operating civil society, goes out of its way to protect people.
Our failure to control, contain, test for or treat the terrors of the coronavirus has been well documented. It’s been a real American Nightmare, a performance in the face of a monumental national challenge best described as “pitiful.” Sports were, for a while, at the vanguard of responsible COVID-19 decision-making — canceling the NCAA tournament was one of the first major precautionary shutdowns, you might recall. But eventually the business interests won out, and an endeavor that revolves around fit and healthy competitors has joined in the insanity.
The billionaire owners of the NBA, the NHL and MLB had seats at the table on reopening advisory boards, and President Donald Trump was vociferous in his desire to get sports back as soon as possible, even in our coronavirus-infused environment. Some state governments, including Florida’s, even went so far as to declare professional athletes essential workers, allowing for the isolating masses to sustain themselves on cable wrestling shows. Athletes will now resume playing sports — albeit without fans — even though basically nothing has been accomplished to eradicate or contain COVID-19.
To their credit, I suppose, the NBA and the NHL have adopted a pair of outlandish plans to ensure a safe-seeming return. Basketball will house every viable team at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. This “bubble” will largely isolate players and staff from the outside world, though they will still be tested every day (even though the state has a massive testing backlog). The NHL has split its own bubble across two Canadian cities, Edmonton and Toronto, and players will also be tested every day (the country has a far smaller testing backlog).
Indeed, the mighty nation of Canada has done a pretty decent job controlling its outbreak, using its more reliable, less chaotic health care system and setting aside political differences to wage a unified fight against a silent, slippery enemy. Canada’s superior touch involved a lot of cooperative efforts and small sacrifices, the kind Americans and their government have been mostly unwilling to make.
Nor, apparently, has Major League Baseball. Unlike their pals on the hardwood and the ice, MLB has decided against centrally locating its teams, and players will be tested only every other day. Contests will take place at home stadiums, on an adjusted schedule that reduces travel but doesn’t eliminate it altogether.
Except the Blue Jays. Because Canada, the home of the Toronto Blue Jays — and, apparently, common sense — shut down the idea of a bi-country season, the Blue Jays have been left scrambling, looking at sharing a stadium with the Pittsburgh Pirates and other U.S.-based options.
Why is it that Canada is able to declare traveling bands of superspreading baseball players off-limits, while the U.S. can’t even keep Disney World closed? Why can the Canadian government act aggressively in the obvious best interest of its people, while America’s virus problem has gotten so bad that the president has taken it upon himself to intercede in testing efforts to reduce the appearance of spreading?
The answer, I believe, is the outsize role wealth plays in dictating the priorities and function of the United States. Sports team owners are extraordinarily wealthy men and women with a lot of influence, and the pandemic has been really bad for the profitability of their league Investments.
Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been self-reporting nine-figure losses on account of the pandemic’s clampdown on sports. Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, whose fortune is based primarily on the similarly suffering casino and chain restaurant industries, has taken on massive debt that naturally became deeply burdensome when all of his revenue streams were subjected to quarantine.
It would take a powerful political force to square off against the financial desperation of owners and have public health come out the winner. The idea that Washington would step in à la Ottawa to oppose reopening this major revenue stream — for tax coffers as well as industry titans — is laughable. The pockets of America’s political class are lined with the dollars of sports team owners; if they wanted a season to happen, even against the best epidemiological practices, it was almost certainly gonna happen.
Some state governments, including Florida’s, even went so far as to declare professional athletes essential workers, allowing for the isolating masses to sustain themselves on cable wrestling shows.
Reinsdorf’s donation list is filled to the brim with various members of Congress, and he’s not even the Chicago-based owner deepest into the political pool. Cubs owners Joe Ricketts and his family are some of America’s most prolific political donors, having funneled more than $30 million into super PAC spending in the previous election cycle. Betsy DeVos of the Infamous high-spending DeVos clan and Trump’s widely loathed education secretary? Part-owner of the Orlando Magic.
If you are suspicious of the role big spending plays in politicians’ decision-making, here is a relevant recent example. Remember when I mentioned Florida’s making pro athletes essential workers and declaring the WWE an essential business? Well, as it turns out, the very same day Gov. Ron DeSantis took that action, longtime WWE executive Linda McMahon’s Pro-Trump super PAC committed to a whopping $18.5 million in television ad spending in the Sunshine State. It stands to reason that there’s a connection.
Canada, with its more stringent regulatory climate and less wealth-obsessed culture, manages the privilege of just not giving a hoot about the fake needs of whiny billionaires in the face of a pandemic. Our chaotic, disease-ridden country could stand to learn from our neighbor’s example.