Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Don’t call it a comeback.
Covid-19 isn’t “back” – because it never left the arena. Kyrie Irving isn’t back, because, well, just as soon as the Brooklyn Nets front office decided that maybe it was, after all, OK for him to be an unvaccinated part-time member of a team that plays in a city that requires vaccination, he went into NBA health and safety protocols alongside nine of his teammates.
Kevin Durant is one of those teammates, telling The Athletic that he had, once again, contracted the virus. In March 2020, Durant, of course, was one of the very first athletes in the United States to test positive.
Back then, we learned a lot about this novel coronavirus through the lens of sport. We studied how it spread after some 40,000 soccer fans from the small city of Bergamo, Italy, screamed their heads off – and sent thousands of respiratory droplets into the crowded air – as their beloved team made its debut in the Champions League. The 200,000 cases in Northern Italy that soon followed demonstrated to scientists, who dubbed that soccer match a “biological bomb,” a great deal of what they needed to know.
Sport also showed us the importance of shutting things down to slow the spread: The NBA went dark, followed by the disappearance of March Madness, the Boston Marathon and Wimbledon, and the unprecedented postponement of an Olympic Games.
As sport crawled back to us via bubbles and spectator-less stadiums, shortened seasons and cardboard fans, its vast resources laid the foundation for how the rest of us might learn to safely return to things like work and school amid an ongoing global pandemic. The starts and stops have been frequent, to be sure – the positive cases that came out of this past summer’s All-Star game, especially from teams who never hit MLB’s 85% vaccination goal – was a big red flag that the league could have done a whole lot better (and yes, my beloved Red Sox, I am talking to you). But has any other entity on this planet had more access and resources than sports leagues to put best practices, such as widespread and consistent surveillance testing, into play?
And yet now, with the Omicron variant spreading the virus in ways we haven’t seen in about a year, perhaps it isn’t just that sport is telling us what we need to know about the virus. The virus, too, is telling us an awful lot about sports. The return of Irving, if it does, indeed, happen, in the midst of the outbreak in New York City, throws a wrench into the NBA’s claim that it wants its players to raise awareness on the critical importance of Covid-19 precautions. The league touts a vaccination rate of over 90%. And yet: How can they sell Irving rejoining the team that cast him aside just a few months ago?
Meanwhile, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers might be making headlines right now for tying Brett Favre’s franchise record as his Green Bay Packers clinched the division title and grabbed a playoff berth – but he remains, as far as we know, unvaccinated. And say what you want about Irving – at least he hasn’t lied about it.
It’s also telling us that while no professional sports league mandated vaccination, the WNBA, which last June became the first to achieve the 99% vaccination mark, set the standard for what we need to do to get it done, with the players association taking the lead and emphasizing education and communication.
But with Omicron, even two-dose vaccination doesn’t seem to be enough. While some colleges, such as basketball powerhouse Syracuse, have already issued booster mandates before students return for the spring semester, and the Beijing Olympics will require unvaccinated teams to do 21 days of “hard quarantine” upon arrival, professional sports leagues are apparently only starting to double down stricter protocols now that they are yet again looking at postponements and cancellations. The NHL, which asserts that all but four of its athletes are vaccinated, is back to mask mandates; the NFL is mandating booster shots for coaches and staff, but not players; and the NBA sent a memo urging boosters.
In this moment, a moment in which the Nets’ emaciated roster has made its front office toss its moral compass aside and bring Kyrie Irving back into the fold, despite the fact that he cannot play at the Barclays Center, in Madison Square Garden or at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, it is time for sport to do better.
As one of the key stakeholders in society, sport has a responsibility not just to make sure that the games go on, but also commit to helping the world beat this virus. As lines snake through the streets of New York City with people waiting hours – sometimes without success – to get their noses swabbed before the holidays, teams like the Nets have no problem getting what they need, access that hasn’t been lost on outgoing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We wish them a speedy recovery,” he tweeted about news of the Nets’ outbreak at a time when lines for tests are so long and at-home tests (if you can find them at all) are too pricey for many to afford. “But … an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Better testing, mask mandates and widespread vaccination, we know, likely comprise our only way out of this latest chapter in Covid-19’s playbook. As the world of professional sport contemplates its next move through lists of postponements and cancellations – the NHL has pushed aside more than 30 games and is contemplating keeping its players home from Beijing, the NFL postponed three games on the Week 15 schedule and the NBA has postponed five games and counting – it is imperative that sport remains a team player in society, demonstrating the kind of sportsmanship that ensures not just the safety of its players, but also for the communities in which they play.