The United States and United Kingdom are the world’s outliers. For supposed first world countries, they have handled the coronavirus pandemic comparatively quite poorly. In perhaps seeking to drive attention away from how badly things have been handled, both governments have turned to a war-time footing. In the United States, President Trump refers to the virus as “the Invisible Enemy.” In Britain, Boris Johnson is now telling the British public to stay alert, as if the virus is a bloke who looks a bit dodgy on the Tube rather than a, well, a virus, and its deleterious effects on society a product of human nature. With a war-time footing vocabulary, both countries are lurching towards “getting back to normal,” like a drunk person who insists they can drive because they had some water. Both countries are using sport as a measure of normalcy: in the United States, it is Major League Baseball, and in Britain, it is the Premier League, with both being used as “morale raisers.”
However, it is not only the individual leaders that are fully responsible for this course of action. Both leagues are acting as other large businesses. And with other options seemingly out of the realm of possibility, like making the money printer go brrrrr and taking a break from the economy for a bit, these leagues, like businesses, will fail if they don’t collect any revenue or get help until the pandemic is over and there is treatment and/or a vaccine. Indeed, Premier League clubs are already going to lose money, with revenue streams down because fans can’t go to games, the spending power of individuals to buy club merchandise is down, sponsorships and commercial deals that aren’t already in place will go on pause, and because the games weren’t broadcasted at the right time and in the right conditions. If Premier League clubs have to pay back £750m, collectively, some may not make it. Just like there is an economic incentive for some businesses to reopen, even at reduced level, there is an incentive for the Premier League.
Whether it is safe is very much a secondary question. Of course, the Premier League wants it to be relatively safe, because otherwise that’d be bad optics, and bad for the brand. But there’s going to be a risk because the virus is in circulation, and it is a largely naive population. That, of course, is the same for most businesses, whether it’s your local restaurant or office building. And while some spaces are better suited to function with aspects of social distancing, in the Premier League, social distancing will purely be performative; you can’t socially distance while defending a corner.
Some places, though, may be more safe than others. Sport has been back in Taiwan for a month, the KBO and K-League got started in South Korea in recent weeks, and the Bundesliga is set to return on Saturday. This is a possibility because Taiwan, South Korea and Germany have been able to relatively control the virus, through efficient testing and contact tracing.
In America, conversations to re-start sports are happening as the country confirms 25,000 new infections a day, while in England, the Office of National Statistics estimated that 148,000 people were infected over the last two weeks; in other words, neither America nor the United Kingdom have control over the virus, an efficient system for tracing the virus, or a scaled-up, organized testing system. And even if they did, opening up has risks: Dynamo Dresden are in a two-week quarantine, and a new wave of infections stemming from a nightclub in Seoul has KBO officials concerned, as restaurants and bars have shut down for another month because of one superspreader.
Players are beginning to recognize that their safety is at risk here. In the Premier League, it is the biggest obstacle to Project Restart. Danny Rose said as much earlier this week, and now Troy Deeney has too. Sean Doolittle, the Washington Nationals closer, expressed concern, not only for players, but for families, staff, and stadium workers. And the reality is that safety cannot be guaranteed, as there isn’t a treatment and there isn’t a vaccine.
Of course, all of this excludes that for many people, safety has never been a possibility during the pandemic. Thousands of people, including many from disadvantaged communities, have had to work throughout this, with inadequate protection, be it porters and cleaners at hospitals, grocery store employees, delivery drivers and bicyclists, prisoners, or congregate care staff and residents. They have been deemed essential, and given that sport is being tied to morale and a sense of normalcy, now so too are athletes.
But what is happening now is the definition of essential is being expanded. This is not because we all of a sudden have new needs, but rather because the system of capitalism demands the extraction of labor for profit, human cost be damned, and there has been too much sitting around for the last six weeks. Football is no different, for it is a business that cannot be done from home. For the Premier League, the supremacy of broadcast money and the current lack of an economic alternative means that the games must go on, which is less true in leagues that are more fan-dependent, such as League Two, or the Eredivisie. The Premier League, though, is the global product, and as such, represents our global economic system, and thus, until the brand of the Premier League is severely threatened, it will be full steam ahead into the unknown.