In addition to bringing the entire planet to a standstill, the COVID-19 crisis tore off the flimsy veneer of civility between sports owners and players, not that it ever existed to any great extent in the first place. The primary example of how focused owners are on the bottom line at the expense of player health has been with Major League Baseball. While the NBA and NHL have acquitted themselves well for the most part, MLB has replaced the NFL as epitomizing the attitude of, “The players? Who cares what they think?”
It’s a business relationship. Sure, there are owners who care about baseball employees – including players – more than others, but most treat them as cogs in their vast organizational labyrinth. Sports ownership might be more enjoyable than being a “Master of the Universe” in the world of high finance. It garners more public attention since there are relatively few people who own sports franchises and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of faceless, nameless replicants in the financial sector. But in the end, it’s another division of their business. Some treat it as a plaything; others want to be the owner holding up a trophy they would never hold based on athletic skill or as the architect of a championship team even if they believe they could have and would have on both counts.
To categorize the owners as inherently evil is easy and somewhat inaccurate. Given the amount of money at stake, it’s entirely understandable that they would want some form of a season no matter how diluted it is. Public lambasting is the price to mitigate some of the television and advertising money they were set to lose, the ticket refunds and lost revenue from the games themselves, and their reluctant decision to pay minor leaguers and team and stadium employees not to work. Given the situation, concessions are in order and they go beyond player safety. Still, they are charging an obscene amount for the MLB package at $59.99 for 60 games and maintaining blackout restrictions.
In the end, it’s a business. It’s always a business. The owners happen to be billionaires, but billionaires are rarely in the habit of giving money away, kowtowing to their employees, or admitting they’re wrong about anything. This is true whether they open the books and prove their cries of poverty that led to demands that the players prorate their salaries and concede to the radical changes Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners ended up unilaterally implementing anyway. There could be a zombie apocalypse and the owners would still try to accrue as much cash as possible by gouging fans while dismissing the contributions of the players as if the owners are the game and the fans and players merely background scenery like a bush in a Bob Ross painting.
If the season takes place – still a major “if” given the fluid nature of the virus and how it is again resulting in the shutdown of entire states – there’s a very real chance that it will be stopped without warning and the term “wait till next year” will take on an entirely new meaning.
Some have looked at South Korea and how they are playing their games with few unforeseen obstacles and wondered why the U.S. could not replicate how they handled it. But “how they handled it” is the key. In South Korea, the citizens were willing to listen to medical professionals and the government to address the virus. There was a plan, not a random set of denials that there was a problem, demands to reopen, groups of people who see conspiracy theories and infringements on freedom with the mandating of wearing masks for their own good. People in South Korea did not take the lead of a government that was using a strategy of “ignore the problem and it will go away” knowing that is not a solution. Admittedly, South Korea is much smaller than North America and this too contributed to the virus being sufficiently contained that regular activities could take place within certain parameters, but the lack of an effective and cohesive government response undoubtedly contributed to the current crisis and inability to play professional sports.
The owners are predominately to blame for their own social experiment in what not to do. Bungling on a smaller scale than what was done nationally is still a bungling. The players, however, do bear responsibility for failing to realize that the owners would use the March 26 agreement against them; for believing that the owners would not exploit their naïveté to suit their own ends of getting players on the field and recouping a portion of their lost revenue. This is a recurring theme with players in any negotiation from the collective bargaining agreement to the protocol during such an unexpected event like a global pandemic.
Allowing the players to opt out of playing is not something owners are accustomed to. Worker bees work. That’s the hierarchy. However, players who objected to placing themselves and their families in harm’s way held the hammer of public opinion, especially since finances were not an issue for the ones who have chosen to opt out. It is not a situation where the players who opt out of playing are still getting their salary. The partial list of players who have chosen not to play (Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Mike Leake, Nick Markakis, Buster Posey) or are mulling it (Mike Trout) are big names who have earned big money. The list of players who have little choice but to play because they need the income and/or do not want to incur disfavor in the organization is expansive. The rosters could end up looking like those of the 1995 replacement players in spring training. For a few, this crisis breeds opportunity in that they will get a look in the majors they otherwise might not have. The changes that have been made with the DH coming to the National League and expanded playoffs pale in comparison to what the game itself will look like under these circumstances, if there is a season at all.