At the very moment league leaders Liverpool kicked off their game against Southampton on Monday, the final Premier League game before a rare seven-day layoff, United Kingdom prime minister Boris Johnson gave a national address to announce a national lockdown.
With immediate effect, schools and non-essential shops would be closed and people allowed to leave their homes only to provide for their basic needs. All amateur sports were shut down and the public’s exercise would be strictly curbed to one outdoor activity per day, with restrictions. The UK is in the throes of a new, more contagious COVID-19 variant and entered its third national lockdown, after a regional tier system evidently failed to take hold. The lockdown is expected to run until at least the middle of February and could go into March as vaccinations are administered and take hold.
Yet even as tennis courts, gyms, swimming pools and golf courses closed — or remained closed in parts of the country — the Premier League and other professional sports will be allowed to keep going.
There had been talk of the Premier League halting play on its own in deference to the rising number of cases, but that notion was summarily shot down in a naked admission to the league’s priorities. Never mind that three Premier League matches had to be rescheduled because of positive cases in the last week alone.
Just hours after the government’s announcement, the Premier League announced that it had 40 positive coronavirus cases in its last two rounds of testing, by far its highest total since league play resumed in June. Manchester City was without six players due to positive tests against Chelsea on Sunday, and its women’s team has four positive cases. City briefly had to close its practice facility altogether, something other clubs have had to resort to as well. Yet the league will stay the course.
“With low numbers of positive tests across the overwhelming majority of clubs, the league continues to have confidence in its COVID-19 protocols, fully backed by the government, to enable fixtures to be played as scheduled,” the league said in a statement. Some alterations to protocols within clubs might be made, but there is agreement between the league and the government that it is taking enough precautions to keep playing.
But the question of how important sports really are surfaces again.
If the government is truly satisfied that Premier League clubs are taking sufficient precautions to protect their employees and ensure that they don’t spread the virus further, that seems valid. But 40 positive cases, even out of 2,295 tests, suggests that the clubs’ bubbles are hardly impermeable.
It’s clear that real financial hurt will befall the top tier of English soccer if the season is suspended again, as it was from March until mid-June, the way it has crushed lower-league teams. But then that’s true of all businesses in the United Kingdom. What makes soccer so special?
Is it a public good? Does the argument made by some that it is important to national morale to keep it going hold up?
Those seem like dubious claims in a time when enormous sacrifices are made, such as children going to school remotely and Christmas celebrations being confined to small groups, to keep the virus in check. And it’s a question that must be answered stateside as well, as the Cleveland Browns will have to appear in their first NFL playoff game in 18 years without head coach Kevin Stefanski due to a positive test.
After all, the end of the pandemic is in sight, no matter how high the second wave has swollen. Mass vaccinations are expected to take place over the spring and summer. While that won’t bring the pandemic to heel immediately — the cases still need to recede to almost nothing, since no vaccine is 100 percent effective — it suggests that something resembling the old normal lays ahead. Next season should bring something of a return to the old revenue levels in most sports.
At best, that makes the insistence on playing during some of the worst weeks of this pandemic seem questionable. At worst, it’s yet another reckless genuflection to pro sports as some kind of higher calling that merits special considerations.
It might well be that the Premier League, and other leagues worldwide, are shut down anyway as this virus continues to extract its terrible toll. But until they are, the optics of a nation stuck at home, schooling their children, trying to hold onto their jobs or keep their businesses alive, while the glittery Premier League lurches on as if all is normal but for the empty stands, will continue to rankle.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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