The absurd theater of COVID protocols in sports

It’s me, and I’m yelling about COVID again. Everything old is new again. Happy reading.

Way back at the start of NFL training camp, before the league reported more than 700 cases of COVID-19, the Broncos sent players through a disinfectant spray-down before they began practice.

The team’s account tweeted a video. Players, heads down, walked under what looked like a cross between a metal detector and a fumigator. They were doused in… something. Whatever it was, it probably didn’t increase the team’s risk of COVID transmission. It also didn’t do a thing to slow the spread of the virus.

Hygiene theater is everywhere: thermometers at restaurants, compulsive Lysol-ing at stores, rampant sanitizing at gyms. Businesses want to be open, and there’s no way to keep unknowingly infected people out—so instead they institute measures to provide customers with a mostly false sense of security. And the NFL is just another business.

So much about this pandemic has been performative. Performative cleaning, performative testing, performative disgust at others’ behavior. Every action is a statement, and more than ever, we seek approval for our choices, permission to keep doing whatever we really, really want to do. Even an illusion of safety can do the trick.

Which brings me to sports’ latest theater. I can’t decide what to call it. Protocol theater? Punishment theater? Whatever it’s called, it started in the summer, when baseball was shocked to realize its initial rules weren’t enough to prevent COVID’s spread in clubhouses. Instead of thinking critically about the root of the problem—the decision to play a season during a pandemic—MLB cracked down with additional protocols after outbreaks paused the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ seasons. Now, in the early stages of their own attempts to play outside bubbles, the NBA and NHL are following suit. Basketball dropped new mask guidelines earlier this month, and it’s enforcing a restriction on what it calls “unnecessary contact.” After Saturday night’s Nets-Heat game, security broke up Kyrie Irving and Bam Adebayo as they tried to swap jerseys. The two had just been on the court together, maskless, for 34 minutes.

The NBA—and MLB, and NFL, and NHL—has said that in-game interactions aren’t enough to clear the CDC threshold for close contact. That’s a totally dubious claim, but it’s the crux of league’s argument to justify play. Guarding an opponent involves no less contact than exchanging jerseys, but one act is essential to putting a product on television, and the other does nothing but make a player or two happy after a long night of work. Cue the security guard flailing his arms, play-acting as if he’s protecting players from a virus that’s just taken a 48-minute break.

In hockey, the Washington Capitals paid the NHL a $100,000 fine last week because four of their players hung out in a hotel room without masks. One later tested positive for COVID. Alex Ovechkin was among the four, and his wife posted on Instagram that he and another teammate have antibodies that would render them immune. Now, all four players are quarantined. But the details are almost irrelevant. Professional sports are playing because leagues and owners want to make money. They want their massive paydays from television networks, which broadcast games each night, which feature maskless players running into each other hundreds of times, wrestling over the ball, setting screens, breathing right in one another’s faces. Noses peek over masks. Some arenas even allow fans, who can pull down their face coverings to drink beer, chomp popcorn, whatever. And players are living at home. They have families. They have kids who go to school, wives who run errands. They’re flying back and forth across the country. They are being exposed to the virus because the men in charge want to play seasons mid-pandemic, no matter what the science says, or the numbers.

The only numbers that matter follow dollar signs.

Should players be as vigilant as possible? Absolutely. The Capitals should have worn masks in that hotel room. Irving and Adebayo should have put theirs on, too. (Even then, though, security probably would’ve shut them down.) But players have eyes and brains. They’ve weighed the health benefits of playing vs. sitting out. They can see that they’re crammed together on benches and in locker rooms, in various states of masking. They know that new rules change none of that, that the virus doesn’t stop being contagious when a puck drops or a whistle blows.

I’m not here to say players should be able to go to packed bars and throw parties and ignore the basic measures of COVID safety. They should be better. We all should be. But sports leagues, through layers of stop-gap protocols and punishments, are deflecting blame they should shoulder. Every complaint about a player’s behavior, every fine, every security guard flailing his arms—distill it down, and there’s a billionaire pointing his finger at the workers who are essential to pulling off mid-pandemic play.

It’s clear that basketball and hockey are going to force their way through seasons, COVID be damned, the same way baseball did, the same way football is about to. I hope players and coaches behave as safely as possible, because it’s clear no one will press pause even if infection rates spike. Instead, leagues will lean on theater: the theater of deflecting, fining, looking as if they’re doing something to make play safer. They want the appearance of having things under control, and disciplining players is the perfect front. But if we’re searching for bad guys, for behavior worth censuring, look to owners, commissioners, the men making the rules who never have to leave their houses or come face-to-face with the virus to do their jobs. Even the most reckless players are nowhere near that culpable.