Bringing professional sports back to Canada in this pandemic is unsafe. Period

By CATHAL KELLY

This week, the Toronto Blue Jays released their plan to resume ‘spring’ training in Toronto. Players will begin heading north from the United States as early as this weekend.

The bullet-point document has a lot in there about testing, mask-wearing, and contactless this and that. It also has a header that says it is for “media reporting use only,” and is “not to be forwarded or screenshotted and shared.”

I’m guessing here, but one presumes this is because sportswriters know next to nothing about epidemiology. But if you spread this thing about on the internet, someone who does – say, a rogue epidemiologist – might start poking holes in it.

Currently, the Jays have clearance to conduct a one-team-only, self-contained training camp at Rogers Centre. Players and staff will stay in the hotel that adjoins the stadium and never leave the environs.

They are still awaiting permission to hold the 60-game baseball season at home. That’s a very different proposition.

That would involve U.S.-based teams flying in and out of Toronto on the regular. Likewise, the Jays would be going to and from the States for months.

In a call on Thursday, Jays president Mark Shapiro referred to this yet-to-be articulated regular-season plan as “modified quarantine.”

This sounds a little like a modified penal colony. Dear inmates, we’d really prefer you stay on Devil’s Island, but there is a ferry back to the mainland on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Please dispose of all knives made out of toothbrushes before boarding.

Sports has a lot of different plans right now, but from the Canadian perspective, there is one overriding concern – keep us away from the United States of America. We wish the Americans the best, but we don’t want them touching us.

The U.S. has become what in eighties sci-fi schlock used to be called The Forbidden Zone. That place outside the walls of the last surviving city on Earth, where all the infected survivors of some nuclear catastrophe hold their cannibal jamborees. Except those jamborees are now bar crawls.

In the movies, if you found yourself in The Forbidden Zone, you didn’t get to come back into the city. Turns out that wasn’t fantasy. It was the early stages of 21st-century urban planning.

On that basis, if you were ranking sports’ plans, the NBA’s is best. It will sequester itself in Orlando at Disney World.

Florida is a coronavirus smorgasbord, but Disney is closed and you can’t just wander into it. Maybe that will work. Either way, it’s an American frolic of their own.

The NHL’s strategy is far less attractive. The league will reportedly forego the U.S. altogether and base itself in Edmonton and Toronto.

On the one hand, hockey’s coming home. On the other, it may have a cold.

This is where we have to start redefining what qualifies as ‘successful’ in the new sporting context. Success is no longer quality of play or how much money this pumps into the local economy (which will be next to nothing).

The NHL returning to Canada is a success if none of the arriving players show up with COVID-19, none of them get COVID-19 while they’re here, and none of them give COVID-19 to anyone outside their bubble.

That last bit is the most important. That’s the responsibility the NHL is taking upon itself. I’m not sure anyone fully realizes the implications of it.

If a couple of stir-crazy players decide to tie up some bedsheets and slip out for a night on the town, the NHL owns that. If a bunch of hospitality workers serving the meals get sick and one of them dies, the NHL owns that. If a COVID cluster pops up and the league decides to tough it out because it’s Game 7 of the conference final, the NHL owns that.

There are two likely outcomes. Everything goes fine, and no one thanks you for it. Everything goes pear-shaped, and a torch-wielding mob shows up to get you and all the Canadian politicians who helped you out.

That doesn’t sound like an optimal either/or to me.

So why, one wonders, would the Blue Jays want to own a decision far more fraught than the NHL’s?

You are not just taking responsibility for your own guys, but for hundreds of other people over whom you exercise no control. You are guaranteeing that whoever drives the team bus in New York or Tampa isn’t giving everyone the bug just before they get on the plane home.

That’s not something you can guarantee. It’s something you hope doesn’t happen. Hope is not an action plan.

The Jays, like everyone else in sports, continue to operate in the realm of best-case scenarios. Their baseline should be worst-case.

At what point do any of these leagues cancel their seasons? Mass outbreaks? How many is ‘mass’? Death? How many deaths? Whose death? It’s a morbid point of conversation, which has allowed everyone to avoid it.

Rather than plan for success (a sports maxim that suits the moment less with each passing day), leagues and teams need to lay out their thresholds for failure. Especially if they intend to involve the rest of us in it by coming here.

Shapiro said the Jays decided as a group they preferred Canada as a base. “Toronto is a more comforting and safe place for them to be,” he said.

I get that. I feel more comforted being in Toronto right now than I would in, say, Jacksonville.

I’d feel even more comforted in COVID-protected spots such as Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. But I’m not allowed to get in my car and drive there right now, for good reason.

Part of us being in this together is that some of us need to stay apart. Short of martial law, there’s only so much government can do to prevent people from being stupid. Travel bans and quarantine periods are a couple of those tools.

Beyond that, we have to trust that a sense of community is enough to convince people to be smart. That tactic is working here and not so much in the U.S.

But it will stop working if the same rules and regulations don’t broadly apply to the highest-profile members in our society. We need to stop thinking in terms of what can be done, but what ought to be done.

There is no sensible world in which baseball ought to be played in Toronto. There is no plan good enough to mitigate the risk. Because I have a baseball plan that entails zero risk for Canadians – not playing baseball in Canada.

It is a wonder to me that decision makers in every sport continue to focus all their mental energy on figuring out how to bring this thing off. Every time they speak, they bang on two topics – how many precautions they’ve taken; and how much fun it will be.

Were I them, I’d think just a little bit about how much fun it will be justifying my role in this if it all goes horribly wrong.

Source: Toronto Globe & Mail

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