Sports' struggle to return in the United States has punctured the myth of American exceptionalism


We are the reason we don’t have sports yet. We being we, the people. 

Our faltering attempts to get back to playing sports are caused by the same forces that have kept us from dealing properly with this pandemic, a brew of hubris, impatience, partisanship and attendant misinformation that has given the lie to the fairy tale we tell ourselves of American exceptionalism

In our conviction that we are a special nation, chosen above all others, a shining city upon a hill, a beacon of hope, under God, we have assumed that nature will favor us, cut us some slack. Or some of us have, anyway. Enough of us to derail the entire effort of stanching a festering virus that gives no consideration to our mammoth self-regard. The coronavirus continues to run rampant, surging from coast to coast, especially in the places that decided they were done with it.

We locked down and then we didn’t, swayed by a sense of invincibility and a perverse conviction that the economy could be rescued by willing the pandemic to be over. We did most of the work and then walked away from the job, buoyed by a subconscious belief that the rules never quite apply to these United States as they do to other nations, who saw the task through and flattened and then beat their curves back into the ground. 

That’s why they have sports and we don’t. Most of the rest of the world has already returned to playing professional sports. In empty stadiums, certainly, but they have their games back.

The United States' response to the coronavirus pandemic has not been exceptional, whatsoever, and sports are among the industries suffering. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The United States' response to the coronavirus pandemic has not been exceptional, whatsoever, and sports are among the industries suffering. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Japanese baseball and soccer leagues have restarted. So have the baseball and soccer leagues in South Korea, which had its first COVID-19 case on the same day as the United States. The Chinese Professional Baseball League is almost 40 games into its season already. In Europe, the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga have all resumed. The leagues that shut down their seasons prematurely, like those in France and the Netherlands, look a tad rash in retrospect. Those that persevered are collecting the spoils with some of the highest TV ratings stateside ever, absent any competition from American leagues.

Even the countries that had their own trip-ups and stumbles in addressing the pandemic, like the United Kingdom, are back at it. 

The American sporting restart, on the other hand, isn’t going well. 

The first American league scheduled to return, the National Women’s Soccer League, which is set to kick off Saturday, had an entire team withdraw on Monday after several Orlando Pride players broke protocol and went out to bars. Six players tested positive and four staffers did as well, and the team was pulled from the tournament-style Challenge Cup. By then, several star NWSL players had already announced they wouldn’t be participating, headlined by Megan Rapinoe

Major League Baseball’s acrimonious fight between players and team owners over money looks quaint considering that the Philadelphia Phillies had to close their camp over eight positive tests, possibly crossing over to the Toronto Blue Jays’ camp as well. MLB’s bubble plan has been scrapped and teams now plan to prepare for whatever season there might be in their home markets — with spring training already becoming summer training. In all, 40 players and staff members are currently positive.

In college football, Kansas State was the latest team to shut down workouts when 14 players tested positive. That came on the heels of Houston pausing its practices as well. LSU has dozens of players in quarantine. At Clemson, 23 players have tested positive and at Texas another 13 have. 

Experts have told Yahoo Sports that the NBA’s plan to finish up its season in Walt Disney World is in real danger as well.

In the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning shut down their practice facility after positive tests, although the league forged on with its next phase of practice, allowing a dozen skaters on the ice at a time, up from six.

But the Orlando Pride, and most of those college football teams, demonstrate how precarious it is to begin thinking about big-time sports again in the United States. The thing that shut down our sports in the first place is still here, lying in wait to pounce. A single night of partying, in several cases, derailed the entire plan. Bubbles must be inflated around teams because the pandemic surrounding them hasn’t been remotely addressed. As such, discipline is paramount and must be absolute.

And we, well, we are not a disciplined people. We’re not exceptional in that sense, either. 

For all of the drawing up of protocols and the declarations of confidence and public posturing, the virus is laughing in the face of all of those plans to restart our sports. And it’s telling us that we’re not special. That we won’t get back to a semblance of normalcy in our sports until we deal with this thing properly and comprehensively. Same as anybody else — just like all of the non-exceptional countries. 

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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