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President Trump’s advisory board for reopening the economy includes representatives of the sports world who will presumably “advise” a time to reopen the gates and play ball. For the administration, this is a source of great concern. As Trump himself said, “We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old.”
Many other politicians have echoed this sentiment. Sports are a priority, even if games have to be played in front of empty stadiums. Yet empty arenas don’t eliminate the risk that players, coaches, and medical personnel would run for contracting the coronavirus—you can’t exactly play sports with social distancing. So surely this committee would be a group of people known for keeping the safety of all athletic personnel foremost in their minds. Not exactly.
The crew that Trump has assembled is like the Bizarro World Super Friends: Baseball commish Rob Manfred, NFL commish Roger Goodell, NHL commish Gary Bettman, NBA Commish Adam Silver, NFL team owners Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones, NBA owner Mark Cuban, UFC overlord Dana White, and World Wrestling Entertainment founder Vince McMahon.
Let’s not mince words. With the exception of Adam Silver and Mark Cuban, this is a collection of the worst actors in the sports world: a group of brigands defined by their lack of care in normal times for the safety and well-being of their employees. It’s almost as if Trump were trolling every athlete, saying, “You are no more than products, and we will decide when to sell you once again.”
There are, indeed, several immediate observations that one can make about this den of thieves, before making a deeper assessment of the group itself. The first and most obvious is that there is nobody from the major sports unions on this advisory board: no Michele Roberts of the NBPA, no DeMaurice Smith from the NFLPA, no Tony Clark from the MLBPA, no Don Fehr from the NHLPA. In other words, the very people charged with helping to maintain the health and safety of the athletes are shut out of this all-important decision during a pandemic. That is unconscionable, and it reflects the anti-union zealotry that’s always been a part of Trump’s outlook on the world.
The second observation is that it’s all white. Do you realize how hard one would have to try to assemble sports leaders and come up with a rotary club of all white guys? Having Roberts, Smith, or Clark on the panel would have helped with this. Alas, again this is a reflection of the Trump administration’s dogged adherence to white supremacy. It will disproportionately be black athletes taking the risks by returning to the field, and yet Trump is telling all of them—the very players he branded as “sons of bitches” when they protested racism—that white people in power will be the ones making that call. If they do send players back to work, expect the owners and their children to remain in their hermetically sealed mansions until the coast is clear. They will assume none of the risk, but are being given an all-powerful megaphone to exhort the players to risk their lives for others’ profits.
Lastly, but certainly not least, one might think that women’s sports do not exist, based on this suburban buffet of sports leaders. It’s beyond offensive, and again entirely fitting with this administration, this president, and the gutter misogyny that’s defined his professional and personal life.
But most telling are the people themselves. Vince McMahon is an anti-union grifter who is currently putting his entire roster of wrestlers—or at least the ones he hasn’t laid off yet—at risk for Covid-19 by resuming live programming in Florida, thanks to an $18.5 million donation to Trump’s Florida reelection campaign, which inspired Governor Ron DeSantis to list pro wrestling as an “essential business.” He has risked his workers’ lives already, and now he gets to decide if other athletes will meet the fate of his employees.
Then there are the people from the NFL: Roger Goodell and the two football owners who pull his puppet strings, who just happen to also be million-dollar Trump donors, Jerry Jones and Bob Kraft. Their treatment and coverup of NFL players who have experienced concussions exposes them as people who care for their bottom line, not the health and safety of their players.
As for Dana White, another Trump friend/donor, he has been trying to establish a “fight island” in international waters where he can continue to stage bouts, no matter the health and safety implications for fighters. He’s almost a caricature, but tragically all too real.
If past is prologue, these people will push to reopen the sports world with little care for their employees. There is only one force that can stop them: the sports unions. The need for sports unions to step up and insist that no one be at risk before any games are played has become critical. This will not be a consensus scenario between management and labor. It will be a fight. If it’s not, people will get sick, people will die, and most of the masters of the universe on this committee won’t lose a wink of sleep.
Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation.