The cynicism is uniform, the greed manifests as reliably as the sun coming up, like war where there’s nickel or oil. This is the rare thing you don’t need explained to you, no matter who you are, because you live in America. You’ve seen the red states stay open, the beautiful boaters, the crush of SUVs outside churches and Home Depots, the terminally importunate confusing freedom with buying stuff, breathing deeply the recycled air of bars and malls, and you’ve seen the coasts and the big city mayors spinning mismanagement into best practices, directed by senses keen and crude of their liberal and lefty public’s stomach for brazen obscenity, as late as possible somberly shutting down—like there should be vigils for darkened pet supply stores, gastropubs doing takeout only—and as soon as possible, too soon, starting up again, throttling the economy till people reach for the antacids and ginger ale, then backing off a titch and calling it heroic restraint. But there’s blood, there has to be, for the movie theaters to screen, hair salons to coif, retailers to sell their treasures and crap. It’s about what the people where you live will put up with, how many of them know a nurse.
It’s all a matter of degree, not kind. The principle remains constant: the money must flow, ever-upward. It does and it has—Jeff Bezos is adding micronation GDPs to his wealth every week; your landlord is getting your money or they’re getting bailed out—but not aggressively enough for the folks who are ostensibly in charge, or their masters.
So you can imagine how hungry the sports leagues are. They’re in trouble with their broadcast partners, haven’t sold a ticket in months. They’re all sitting on billion-dollar assets, but they are not hungry for actual money so much as profit, the numbers that don’t really mean anything turning black, turning green and gold, and going up. The folks who own ballclubs are surpassingly comfortable. They could drop $50 million down an open manhole and their lives wouldn’t change but when the numbers stop going up they get this awful itch in their rectums. It dominates their thoughts and ruins their sleep. Like there’s a bog’s worth of mosquitoes up there. They visit a doctor so out of your network he might as well practice on Jupiter, and the doc tells them the sole cure is balancing the books. Crush the players’ union, kidnap James Pitaro, whatever you need to do. That’s my medical advice. Who are they to reject the counsel of such a superlative physician?
This is all to explain why baseball is back. The owners waffled for a while on whether they wanted to stage a shortened season or get a head start on the 2021 lockout. Lowballed the players to hell, cut every minor leaguer they could, and in the end decided to heal America, or however the press releases framed it. This happened late; there wasn’t much runway between when they reached an agreement with the MLBPA and when they needed to start playing games or risk staging the World Series in January. That the restart was not thought through goes without saying. Baseball is run by thoughtless people who seem not to particularly like the sport they’ve so assiduously monopolized. The past few offseasons have been stunk up by a soft capital strike, solid and sometimes even all-star caliber talent dying on the free agent market, literal MVPs salary dumped according to some vague and likely imaginary model of sustainability. Of course they threw the shortened bastard season together in a few weeks. Little in the way of protocol to keep players safe, no contingency plans to respond to the crises invited by their carelessness. Literally three games in and half a team is already sick. What happens now? Well, they’ll play it by ear.
By contrast, the NBA, which is slated to return this Thursday, is doing its punctilious best. Adam Silver and company started figuring out what their restart would look like, down to travel restrictions, down to banning doubles ping-pong in the games room, from the second they stopped playing in mid-March. A mighty bureaucracy’s worth of memoranda and recommendations, a million minor logistics sorted and every specific they could think of accounted for. That their scheme also seems impossible to pull off speaks not to their incompetence but the stubborn flourishing of the virus they’re attempting to wall their players away from. (Stationing everything in Florida, admittedly, does not help.) If this is all in service of getting the owners paid, which it definitely is, they have at least invested an impressive amount of energy and intellect into achieving that end.
But, but. The cynicism is uniform, the greed manifests as reliably as acne in the teenager’s complexion, as mysterious service fees on your cable bill, your bank account getting dinged for not having enough money in it. Major League Baseball’s plan sucks because it’s threadbare. The owners wanted to put a product on TV ASAP with hardly a concern as to how to do so safely. The NBA’s plan sucks because it’s an expertly finessed justification for pulling the same nonsense MLB is. It is not only that; it’s also the product of a bunch of people who love basketball trying to figure out how to bring it back, drafting proposals as thick as infrastructure bills.
It’s not all bad faith and bean-counting. The people who run the NBA, not the owners so much as the folks in the league office, care about the sport, and some of them are even quite smart, but when you start under the assumption that your sport should return—that it is very important, that there’s too much scratch at stake—the work that proceeds from that assumption is poisoned. You’re solving problems, sure, heading off concerns, but you’re also, at bottom, talking yourself into what you have decided is necessary. Maybe when you’re weighing the risk factors involved in a ping-pong match, it dawns on you how ridiculous this is. That if this needs to be regulated, everyone would be a lot better off staying home. (A flood of perspective: the poor Disney employees! The wasted tests!) Or maybe you’re in too deep.
To put it much more pithily, here’s Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle: “sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” That’s quite a persuasive way to put things, but America and its titanic business interests are beyond persuasion, its captured politicians ambivalent at best and homicidally gung ho at worst. The rich guys will reach the conclusions they want to reach, extract what they understand as already in their possession. The itch, the itch. Whatever relieves it, whatever the means.