If you don’t know who Ignaz Semmelweis was, I don’t blame you. But his story is a good one worth noting in what is now the seventh month of a novel coronavirus pandemic in America.
Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician and scientist who lived from July of 1818 until his untimely death on August 13, 1865. He’s now considered one of the earliest pioneers of antiseptic procedures —using a chlorinated lime solution to wash his hands when treating puerperal fever or as it was also called “childbed fever.” He discovered that cases of the fever could be drastically reduced by this simple method of handwashing.
Today, we’d see Semmelweis as a scientist ahead of the curve. A man of science that helped save the lives of so many children that he was described as the “savior of mothers”.
In a cruel twist, Semmelweis became the victim of what might be one of the first culture war battles over the spread of infectious disease. Instead of Semmelweis being in the pantheon of scientists like Jonas Salk, he was ridiculed in his day for his outspoken views on the handwashing practice so much so that he had a nervous breakdown where his peers had him committed to an asylum. He would later be beaten by guards so severely that he died from the injuries. All because of handwashing.
I bring Semmelweis up because it often seems like humanity can go out of its way to make life more difficult when given the choice between something very simple (like handwashing or mask-wearing), and loud voices in the gallery (such as Semmelweis’ peers). As America has seen COVID-19 cases approach 3.5 million and related deaths about to surpass 137,000, the country is embroiled in a culture war that has done anything but put it in a place to see the end of the tunnel. While other countries figured out how to flatten the curve, the U.S. continues its steep climb in cases and deaths with a faction of the country looking to “get on with life” while discounting the grim data. Science be damned. Lock the scientists up in the asylum.
Through this all, sports leagues have stumbled their way through the complexities of trying to come back amid the escalating COVID numbers. Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball has said that bringing baseball back might bring some normalcy into life and somehow soothe the nation much as it did when it did the week after 9/11.
But more and more, I see bringing sports back as rewarding bad behavior. That in “bring back my normal, not the new normal,” the country has decided it is far better to ignore Rome burning and get their sports fix on.
Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle recently talked about bringing sports back in the pandemic and landed on some truisms. Namely, “sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”
Doolittle is right. Be it baseball, basketball, hockey, or eventually football, as the numbers continue their increase, the health and safety of friends or family just doesn’t seem enough to get the point across. It might not register that Grandma may wind up on a ventilator and die, but tell them they’ll lose the NFL or SEC football if they don’t start wearing a mask and watch the country fall in line.
Right now, America doesn’t deserve sports. Some of you are trying. Others say it’s overblown. The virus, meanwhile, really doesn’t seem to care. While the culture battle rages into a dumpster fire worthy of the core of the sun in 2020, the reality is that 2021 is in the crosshairs. Think it sucks now? What if America doesn’t get its act together and we’re having this same conversation a year from now? Sports will then be fighting not just the pandemic but serious economic crisis. At that point, is it the owners or commissioners we should blame? Or, should we be taking a hard look in the mirror and realizing America is its own worst enemy?
Through this, the athletes are trying to perform under bizarre circumstances, and potential danger so we can be entertained. MLS has seen one contest already canceled due to a player testing positive just before kickoff. The NBA’s Kevin Durant has tested positive. And a large list of MLB players are opting out of the 60 game shortened regular season that could get started only to collapse under its own weight under the pandemic. Yes, there are front line workers out there doing critical work at grocery stores to allow us to go about our daily lives, but let’s be honest… are athletes essential workers? Maybe it’s not a roman colosseum but I keep waiting for Mike Trout or LeBron James to eventually channel Maximus in Ridley Scott’s epic movie Gladiator, turn to the cameras and say, “Are you not entertained?!?”
Sports is America’s top distraction, and maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we should be paying closer attention, wear a mask, and try and get the numbers to a point where we can have nice things. Like a child that doesn’t finish its dinner, America, you shouldn’t be given your dessert; your treat; your sports fix. Right now, you don’t deserve it.