A friend said something to me on Memorial Day weekend that spoke to a truth that I have increasingly come to believe. We were sitting on her deck. Her two daycare-aged sons were toddling through the yard. Her husband was sitting next to me, another college friend on the other side. Her father was next to her. The sun was high and bright, the air clear and still. There were rabbits running through a yard around a pool newly opened.
It had been months since we’d all been together. We had spent the intervening days like most of the rest of the country, each 24 hours an exercise in reconciling advice and contextualizing rhetoric to separate the hysteria from the caution and the skepticism from the denial, each of us grappling with the stakes that said that one wrong move could make you a killer. Gradually, the worry gave way to the realization that no such candle can burn on forever.
And so we gathered, and we grilled, and we ate, and we drank, and while we minded our distance we mostly forgot that this Memorial Day was different. At least, I think that we did. The most insipid thing about our current moment is the way it leaves you feeling like a primary suspect. Was everybody comfortable? Did I get too close to the kids? Her dad is in his 60s, and fresh off back surgery -- were there moments when I was not adequately mindful of that? Does he care? Do they care? What if somebody gets sick?
There are costs to this thing. I don’t know much for sure, but I do know there are costs. Connection is a part of our natural state. Of the natural state of all living beings. Ecosystems are fragile things. The smallest disruption can cause the gravest imbalance. With any luck, the current moment will be a testament to our power of adaptation, a case study in the resilience that led to this civilization. I don’t know, and nobody does, and anybody who offers any sort of definitive judgment should be regarded with the greatest suspicion. I know that. And I know there are costs.
Another thing I know, at least I think that I do, is that the costs have not garnered adequate consideration in the sphere of public opinion. I suspect that is mostly due to human nature. We are a risk-averse species, a truth that has long been established by copious amounts of research in the fields of behavioral economics and decision-making science. Give $5 to one human being and take $5 from another and the sense of loss from the latter will be greater than the former’s sense of gain. Combine this with our bias toward novelty and you get a big, bolded death count looming in perpetuity on the right side of your screen. Immediacy, finality, the inherent discomfort with the transience of being, all play a role in our tunnel-visioned focus on the most visceral of suffering.
That’s understandable. And it might be OK. None of this is meant to suggest that the concrete actions we have taken have been conducted in error. But from the perspectives of both psychology and economy, we have chosen to make considerable sacrifices that will not be fully understood until well into the future. If our collective goal is to identify the optimal path forward, to navigate this uncertain future in a manner that maximizes the amount of human flourishing possible given our unenviable constraints, then the immediate moment demands that we analyze each decision with a clear and accurate appraisal of both benefits and costs.
I do not know for sure that such an appraisal would assign a net benefit to the return of sports. I don’t think that is something that anybody can know for sure. But I do suspect that a comprehensive analysis of all of the data points available to us would overwhelmingly suggest that the reward far outweighs the risk. Admittedly, the suspicion is contingent on a rather important premise. It requires a certain level of individual responsibility when interacting with the world at large on the part of the 3,000 or so players and coaches and staff who will spend the rest of the summer inhabiting each league’s carefully curated island. But once you grant me that premise, the data seems clear.
The data says that roughly 80% of COVID deaths have occurred to those 65 and older. It says that a far greater percentage of those participating in these sports will be well below those years. The data says that, besides age, physical health is the two greatest predictors of COVID hospitalization, and that the majority of those who will be involved in these games rank in the extreme upper percentile in that category. It says that, apart from common-sense hygiene and social distancing, a comprehensive test-and-trace program is perhaps the most significant safeguard against an outbreak, and it says that both the NBA and MLB will have such a program that far exceeds the capabilities of even the most competent of nations. The data says that each televised game will draw hundreds of thousands -- or even millions -- of viewers more than whatever summer rerun would be shown in its place. And, as we are increasingly seeing at the nation’s beaches, the data says that if those hundreds of thousands or millions aren’t watching sports, they will engage in activities that guarantee far more exposure.
There is much less quantifiable data available to measure the benefit of sports’ return, at least beyond the finances. But that does not make such benefits any less real, and it returns me to the thing that my friend recently said. In the midst of a conversation about the trajectory of the previous few months, she pinpointed a moment when the fear and anxiety and stress became real.
“I wasn’t really scared," she said, “until they canceled sports.”