Big money sports — profit trumps safety

Pandemic and racial injustice spark player pushback

Football players on the sidelines, some standing and some kneeling. They are giving each other questioning looks.
San Francisco 49ers players take a knee during the national anthem before an NFL game in October 2017 in Landover, Maryland. Vice-President Pence walked out when they knelt. PHOTO: Keith Allison
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Running back Raheem Mostert was ahead of the curve. A lifetime ago the San Francisco 49ers’ star scored four touchdowns in January’s National Football Conference championship game and led his team into the Super Bowl. In March, a week before the coronavirus shut down the sports world, Mostert canceled an appearance at an autograph show in Santa Monica.

U.S. Covid-19 deaths reached 130,000 at the end of June, and now many NFL players question the upcoming 2020 season saying, “We don’t know what it’s going to take for us to be back out there on the field.”

All this was before the May 25 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The video of officer Derek Chauvin killing Floyd quickly went viral and drew millions, including professional football and other sports figures, into the streets, chanting “Black Lives Matter,” and “Jail Killer Cops.” The rise of the coronavirus and racial protests have truly conflagrated the sports world.

Big sports in turmoil. President Donald Trump wants sports to return. He often takes to Twitter to criticize activist athletes like Colin Kaepernick and the National Basketball Association’s LeBron James. He says he’s “tired of watching old baseball games on TV.” More likely, Trump wants a diversion and a “return to normalcy” to take the spotlight off his slow response and backward leadership during the pandemic.

Most sports are in the midst of plans to reopen — without fans in the seats but providing fodder for sports-starved TV watchers. Safety is hardly the number one priority with the NBA and Major League Soccer, who will play at a sports complex in Orlando, Florida owned by ABC and ESPN. While the complex will isolate players in a controlled environment, the state entered July ranked 6th overall in reported U.S. Covid-19 cases with 3,549 deaths reported.

The National Women’s Soccer League was the first to return with a month-long tournament in Utah, beginning June 27. The Women’s NBA plans to begin games in late July in Bradenton, Florida. The National Hockey League will start playoff games at the end of the month, but in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Edmonton. College sports have the cloudiest forecast. While college schedules are often made well in advance, games may not be played if students aren’t on campus.

Baseball’s return raises more questions. A truncated season begins July 23 with games scheduled in major league cities. Players and coaches would travel around the country — increasing the risk to their health. Players in all sports are expected to sit out or be sidelined due to the virus. Heading to training camps, the NBA, NHL and MLB all had players who’d tested positive for the virus.

Social justice and labor woes. “It is the players’ union — and only the union — that is standing up and asking the questions that need to be asked,” said Dave Zirin, who runs the progressive sports blog Edge of Sports. NBA players’ union vice president Kyrie Irving argued that playing games could distract from social justice issues. Other players want the games to be used as a platform to advance social causes. In the WNBA, Washington’s Natasha Cloud is sitting out the season to concentrate on political activism. Converse, the sneaker company, will pay her salary. The union and the owners are currently negotiating for players to promote political or charitable causes on their uniforms.

Before the first NWSL game, all the team members of the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns took a knee during the anthem while wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. Megan Rapinoe, while playing for the U.S. Soccer team in 2016, took a knee in support of the NFL’s Kaepernick, had her job threatened by U.S. Soccer. Rapinoe, an LBGTQ+ activist and one of the more outspoken professional athletes, is sitting out the tournament because the coronavirus numbers are rising in Utah.

NHL and NBA players are still negotiating their 2019-20 contracts but MLB contracts have been pro-rated, with players getting only 37 percent of their salaries as the league will play roughly 37 percent of the games. The WNBA has pledged to pay players their full salaries. NFL owners say they’ll take a revenue hit if there are no fans in the seats and salary caps are based on revenue from the previous season. So the owners have floated the idea that players take a pay cut in 2020. But as CBS sports points out, “the NFL is a year-by-year league, and there are a lot of players who will be on the field in 2020 who won’t make a roster in 2021. There would be no reason to give up money now to help future revenues that they wouldn’t ever see.”

Numerous players have spoken in favor of groups like Black Lives Matter and for racial equality, so it’s no surprise they will object if their own health is at risk. One thing is for sure. The players will be putting their bodies and their health on the line while the owners try to take in the big bucks.

Contact the author at raymurphy12@email.com.

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