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June 15, 2020

John McMullen: Protests are okay, but sports aren't?

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116_01052020_EaglesvsSeahawks_Eagles_fans_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Eagles fans during the team's wild-card loss to Seattle.

Full disclosure, I’m not an epidemiologist, although I’ve been asked to play one on the radio far too often over the past few months when discussing the COVID-19 pandemic and the public-policy decisions it has spawned.

The second part of this little exercise is the acknowledgment that no one wants sports back more than me, a confession that might lead you to believe there is a building excitement here for the return of my two favorites, the NBA, and the opening of NFL training camps, tentatively set for July 28 when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles.

After reading about the plans for return from the COVID-19 shutdown from the two most popular sports leagues in this country, however, I’m prepared to take a different path, albeit with one caveat — sports shouldn’t resume with draconian restrictions planned and no fans in the stands. The qualifier to a continued dark period is the science must demand that be the case and those explaining it have to give clear and concise reasoning for why things must continue in that direction. And that doesn’t mean an anonymous Twitter Ph.D. from the Northeast parroting what he heard from his favorite politician on social media.

The benefit of the doubt has been shattered by the politicization of lockdowns and social distancing. The minute having fun was shamed and protesting was lauded by some in the scientific community the game changed.

This isn’t about morality either. Along with the “stupid” revelers in the Ozarks or in Ocean City, MD, so many others have been banned from meaningful and personal activities for them whether that’s attending church services, eschewing planned weddings, or properly saying goodbye to loved ones with funerals. Even cancer screenings were derailed but protesting was deemed acceptable by over 1,000 health “professionals,” who actually signed a letter with a headline like: “Don't shut down protests using coronavirus concerns as an excuse.” 

"We created the letter in response to emerging narratives that seemed to malign demonstrations as risky for the public health because of Covid-19," the letter writers, many of whom are part of the University of Washington's Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, mused. "Instead, we wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response. We believe that the way forward is not to suppress protests in the name of public health but to respond to protesters demands in the name of public health, thereby addressing multiple public health crises."

You read that correctly. Scientists and doctors were joining some political types to “present a narrative.” The hypocrisy was startling and so bold it was almost inspiring from a testicular-fortitude perspective.

Those three words coming from the very scientists you have been told ad nauseum were not political. You’ve been told over and over the data will make these decisions and yet there you have it, at least some of the supposed arbiters of this critical data are admittedly presenting narratives in opposition to conflicting ones.

Revisionism never had a better day.

"As public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission,” the letter stated. “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators' ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders."

Personally I have two degrees and none of them are in the medical field, so that’s not my expertise. Common sense is in the wheelhouse, though, and you shouldn’t need anyone to explain large gatherings are either risky or they’re not. COVID-19 isn't furrowing its brow and tapping its chin, contemplating which ideological group it will attack and which one it will pump the brakes on based on a moral compass.

In the race to label everyone not accepting one viewpoint, putting grandma in danger by partying, worshiping or mourning is very bad. Putting her in danger by accepting the western world’s infatuation with narcissism and self-aggrandizement is just fine.

Some will take this the wrong way (they always do) and assume the advocacy here is to restart sports with no restrictions or criticize protesters, but my stance presents two options and either is perfectly fine.

Allow large gatherings or don’t. If outside is OK and inside isn’t, fine. But, be consistent. This is supposed to be about public safety and nothing else.

Intellectual dishonesty is the problem here and that is supposed to be the domain of politics, not science. A politician of a certain bent is expected to say protesting is approved when it comes to COVID-19 while attending a pool party or a football game isn't as long as it helps the chances on election day. A medical professional or doctor isn’t supposed to play that game.

Many in the scientific community who do take their jobs seriously have stayed the course and been very consistent, but just as one bad apple can spoil the bunch, guilt by association is now in play. Explanations must be disseminated and clear and concise reasoning why restrictions in sports need to continue must be demonstrated on a consistent basis for continuing any kind of shutdown in this country especially from those who have shown their hands.

Elevated testing means elevated positives so that’s not the kind of data you should be looking for. Hospitalizations, serious cases of the disease, and the impact on the health-care system are the only things that matter. Heck, you’ve probably forgotten but that was the original goalpost long ago until the spin doctors got involved.

The sheer lack of common sense from supposed smart people in all of this is far more frightening than any disease.

NFL teams have to socially distance right up until they are tackling each other. Basketball is set to be in an Orlando “bubble” and youth baseball players in Delaware can’t steal second base.

Outside sports it gets even more laughable.

New York City health advice discourages casual sex during COVID, but also says if you’re going to have it: “Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face to face contact.” In Hollywood, love scenes may be replaced by CGI

If this all sounds like it’s coming from The Onion, you're missing the brilliance of satire poking fun at the obtuse who inspire it. The aforementioned plans and advice are all too real.

More so, no one of substance making these declarations even attempts to tackle the realization that so many are no longer listening to the demands anyway. If the data is positive they simply pretend their constituencies are a monolith blindly following the orders and if the numbers trend negatively, as they’ve started to do over the weekend, the shaming starts anew.

The sheer hubris in thinking a virus can be legislated was always specious but common-sense advocacy and encouragement of things like washing your hands, social distancing, and wearing masks were deemed insufficient. All of that might be too big a concept for most to wrap their heads around in the moment but you no longer have to imagine what that end-game looks like because you’ve lived it for three months and have most likely already paid a price, be it with mental health or the pocketbook.

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh was the first to point out the obvious when it came to the NFL’s current plan to start training camps, calling the plans “humanly impossible” to follow.

“I’m pretty sure the huddle is not going to be six feet spaced,” the long-time former Eagles assistant under Andy Reid said on 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore. “Are guys going to shower one at a time all day? Are guys going to lift weights one at a time all day? These are things the league and the [NFLPA] needs to get a handle on and needs to get agreed with some common sense so we can operate in a 13-hour day in training camp that they’re giving us and get our work done.”

From a practical standpoint, the golden goose of television rights fees forbids a play or don’t play up and down vote when it comes to professional sports. The leagues have to provide content to get their money but it sure would be nice to put the charlatans crafting policy on the record with something people really want back in their lives and forcing them to live with the consequences of their decision-making.

Straddling the fence with illogical and impossible hurdles to feign safety you cannot possibly provide has always been a counterproductive exercise.

“You can tell by my voice, I’m a little frustrated with what I’m hearing there. And I think they need to get that pinned down a little better,” Harbaugh said. “Now maybe we’ll know more in two months and they’ll be able to be a little more realistic and practical in what they’re asking. I expect that to be the case.

“I think good people, smart people are involved in this. But the way I’m reading these memos right now, you throw your hands up and you go, ‘What the heck? There’s no way this can be right.’”

Play or don’t play moving forward but Harbaugh is correct. There is no way what’s being proposed now can be right.



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MORE: McMullen: As our nation burns, it's impossible to 'stick to sports'


John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for SI.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter: @JFMcMullen

You can listen to John during the week every Monday and Friday on @SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on @SBNationRadio, and daily on your favorite podcast platform for "Extending the Play." 

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