Players opting out of return-to-sports are a microcosm of pandemic

Among the many ugly things about the Covid-19 pandemic is the way it divides Americans by economic class.

Those with money are shielded from the virus in countless ways. Among them: They are more likely to have the privilege of shifting to work from home (hand raised here), keeping their jobs and paychecks without myriad real-world exposures. Even if they are laid off, they are more likely to have resources to weather the financial storm without worrying about things like paying for housing and food.

The choices this class has needed to make in the last few months are real, but many of them have been questions of logistics, convenience and stress-management.

Those who cannot work from home — depending on their own labor or their own business, for example — have experienced that last few months in a way that is outside of my experience. The choice of whether to go to work at a grocery store or a restaurant is a false one in a lot of cases. When the question is whether to expose yourself to virus risk or stay afloat economically, the answer tends to be self-evident. You do what you have to do for yourself and/or your family.

It’s offensive that the American economy is a driver of so much of our decision-making on a matter of public health. It’s also illuminating that as the U.S. sports world makes plans to resume, these very same questions of economics and choice seem to be informing the decisions of athletes and institutions.

Several high-profile athletes have already made the decision to opt out of their respective leagues’ return. Ian Desmond of the Rockies was among the most recent and thoughtful to do so, writing a long Instagram post that encompassed a lot of his history as a biracial man, social justice and concerns about Covid-19.

Ryan Zimmerman of MLB’s Nationals opted out over health and safety concerns for his family. The NBA’s Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza are also opting out for similar reasons, with family at the forefront of their decisions.

Pro sports aren’t exactly jobs you can do from home, of course. But it’s interesting that many of those opting out so far are veterans who have earned tens of millions of dollars in their careers (all four players referenced above have made at least $50 million, per Baseball and Basketball Reference).

Those players should be respected and applauded for making principled decisions. But they also are the beneficiaries of the privilege of choice.

What we haven’t seen much of is players who have a lot more to lose — both financially and in terms of career advancement — deciding to sit out either restarts or truncated seasons.

An exception is a number of WNBA players planning to sit out the season either to work for social justice reform or Covid-related reasons. The average yearly cash compensation in that league jumped to $130,000 with the new collective bargaining agreement this season, but that’s still far less than average salaries in the NBA and MLB. (It is interesting to note that Converse is going to pay the $117,000 salary the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud is forgoing this season as she fights for social justice).

Young players in MLB might need their paychecks from this season. Others certainly fear that, if they are on the fringes of pro sports rosters, a lost season will push them out forever. Out of sight, out of mind.

The scale is obviously different than for someone making an hourly wage at Target vs. a rookie trying to play at Target Field, but in both cases the choices are different than the ones Desmond is making or that I’m making.

We’ve seen the same thing, in a way, with decisions about sports in general. While big money pro leagues are going to great lengths — even as positive tests mount — to play and capture even a portion of the massive revenue normally generated during a season, we’re already seeing numerous cancellations of seasons in levels like Division II and III sports where health can be prioritized over money because there’s less of the latter at stake.

All of it gets back to a central point: The risk-reward calculation is different depending on your situation, even if the virus isn’t.

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