Your mother lied to you. Sometimes, two rights do equal a wrong. The chaos that has enveloped Major League Baseball’s alleged championship season is one such example.
As is often the case with a trembling structure, the blame falls squarely on a foundation that is fundamentally unsound. That shaky ground is the direct result of the acrimonious negotiations between players and owners that resulted in the current season’s framework. And that acrimony was the direct result of each party’s prioritization of its own immediate self-interest over the collective self-interest of the game.
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What we’re left with is a baseball season that will be lucky to make it through the month with people still paying attention. After less than a week’s worth of games, it has become blatantly clear that the sport’s plan for reopening amounted to little more than “Hell, we can’t get lucky if we don’t try.” Given the realities of the virus in our midst, and the complete failure of our local and national leaders to chart a coherent path to shore, the only surprise is that baseball’s luck ran out as quickly as it did. As for everything else? The outbreak in the Marlins clubhouse? The decision to play on? The players’ rebellion against that decision? In hindsight, these things should have been self-evident from the start.
It’s easy to blame the Marlins for handling things as they did. And maybe we should. Clearly, they understood that they had a decision to make after several players tested positive. Clearly, the group chat discussion they held before facing the Phillies resulted in the decision that was most likely to further the virus’ spread. It seems clear that they chose the wrong option.
Except, the error of the Marlins’ ways is only truly clear in a world in which the primary objective is to minimize everyone’s risk of contracting the virus. And that’s not the world in which the Marlins made their choice. In the world that baseball has created for itself, the primary objective is to finish the season. Before play began, MLB and its players created a framework where positive tests would be dealt with in a certain way. That way would not involve canceling any games. The players who tested positive would be identified, removed, and isolated, and everybody who did not test positive would carry on. Given that everyone who is participating in that world volunteered to do so, and given that they were all aware of that world’s objective, it’s difficult to conclude that the Marlins were under any obligation to take matters into their own hands and insist on halting play.
It might seem, then, that the owners are to blame. And maybe they are. The idea that a team can and should continue to play games despite multiple positive tests is preposterous. Expecting a team in the Marlins’ situation to play a competitive game is laughably counterproductive in a world in which the goal is to crown a legitimate champion while also minimizing the spread of a virus. From the standpoint of competitive legitimacy, Miami was fortunate that it happened to be playing the Phillies. But that is beside the point. Like health, legitimate competition is not the ultimate goal of the season that baseball has created.
Thus, we find ourselves in a situation where it is possible to blame nobody and everybody all at once. Aside from getting wildly lucky, baseball’s only chance at staging a legitimate season was creating a framework that prioritized such a thing. And that would have required the architects of that framework — MLB owners and the MLBPA — to prioritize something other than their own immediate self-benefit.
It would have required owners to sacrifice whatever meager revenue streams that will continue to trickle as a result of hosting games in their home stadiums. And it would have required players to sacrifice three months of their personal freedom and submit to spending three months in an NBA-style bubble.
It would have required owners to sacrifice more of the cash that sits in their credit-lined pockets in order to incentivize players to take the season seriously. And it would have required players to sacrifice a greater percentage of the per-game pay that they believed they were entitled to receive under the terms of their contracts.
Instead, the two sides spent three months engaging in the same sort of partisan warfare that has hampered society at large. Like society, baseball’s factions were in need of a singular leader capable of balancing the competing self-interests of his/her constituency and guiding the collective toward its best possible outcome (unlike society, the problem is that baseball’s structure does not include such a position, and not that it has appointed a man who is either unwilling or unable to do it).
Over baseball’s turmoil looms the specter of the NFL season, which already looks to be on shakier ground than one might have expected. With roughly a week to go before the deadline to opt out, at least 26 players have already announced that they will be sitting out.
While none of those players are of such a singular caliber that their absence alone threatens the legitimacy of a season, they include enough prominent names/roles to bring the league uncomfortably close to the edge of the cliff. The deadline is a massive bit of leverage for the players, but for the NFL to have a chance at a successful season, it must learn from baseball’s failures.
Professional football’s only hope of staging a legitimate 2020 campaign is with 100% buy-in from the folks who actually play the game. This might be why you are starting to see a flurry of contract extensions awarded. It’s also why there is some reason to think that the NFL might be uniquely suited to insulating itself from pandemic.
Even in normal years, to play professional football is to spend five-plus months inside a de-facto bubble. From August through December, most of these guys spend 90% of their time at home or at the practice facility. In fact, when word came out about the NBA’s plan to isolate its players from society for an extended period of time, you could almost hear the snickers from former gridiron greats. Throw in bunk beds and two-a-days and it used to be called training camp.
The NFL faces plenty of challenges unique to its sport, from the size of its rosters to the relative paucity of its pay to the frequency of close on-field contacts. Navigating this minefield will require a synergy of trust and vision among owners, coaches, and players.