Sports will begin to return over the next month, but the truth is we as a country haven’t earned the right to have them back.
For proof, you need to look no further than the continued cavalier attitude of one of sports’ premier icons: Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.
As the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States and cases continue to spike in Florida, Arizona, South Carolina and California, Brady continues to ignore NFL doctors' recommendations to avoid group workouts in order to limit the risk of potential spread.
To be fair to Brady, he's far from the only NFL athlete who has ignored guidelines about social distancing, mask-wearing and limiting travel set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since the coronavirus exploded in America in March. Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers were holding group workouts in San Jose, against regulations, and again when they flew to Tennessee for more Camp Garoppolo fun. Then, one member of the 49ers tested positive for COVID-19 and NFLPA Dr. Thom Mayer advised players to avoid group workouts a day later.
Brady, the NFL's marquee star and arguably the greatest quarterback in history has ignored that request and continued to host unsanctioned workouts even as cases in Florida ballooned over the past week. Brady appeared to respond to critics of his decision to disregard caution with a few photos on his Instagram story this week.
The first, posted Tuesday, had the caption, "No excuses."
NFLPA advised players to stop group workouts in light of recent spikes in positive COVID-19 testing. Tom Brady still had a group of Bucs players working out today. His Instagram: “No excuses.” pic.twitter.com/RUOr6LKhyq— Greg Auman (@gregauman) June 23, 2020
The second, posted Thursday, offered a quote from former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Another quote on Instagram from Tom Brady, again practicing with Bucs teammates in Tampa today after NFLPA medical director recommended players not to practice in groups: pic.twitter.com/2wqVT7hN8c— Greg Auman (@gregauman) June 25, 2020
Roosevelt uttered that phrase during his 1933 inaugural address in reference to the Great Depression, which fundamentally had altered American life, just as the pandemic has. Some might paint Brady, someone with a questionable track record when it comes to science, as being foolish in ignoring guidelines and continuing to work out. Others, likely those who have decided that wearing a mask is tantamount to torture, view him as fearless.
It doesn't matter what side of the fence you land on, but Brady and many others’ refusals to follow simple guidelines for the health and safety of themselves and others illustrates the biggest issue sports faces as it attempts to return amid a still growing public health crisis. And why we haven't earned the right as a society to have them come back yet.
You simply can't expect professional athletes to follow guidelines. You must set firm rules, punishable by consequences if they’re not followed.
Of course, Brady doesn't fear a virus that's infected more than 2 million Americans and killed over 120,000. No obstacle is too big from Brady’s perspective. In his eyes, he simply has just outworked and out-prepared everyone else.
Brady’s also wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and is considered the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. He lives a privileged existence, and people like him often don’t believe things like a virus can touch their world. They don't think of asymptomatic carriers or potentially passing the virus on to others. There's no need to follow guidelines. They simply are immune. Why wouldn't they be?
It's a special breed of American exceptionalism to believe you can't be impacted by things normally reserved for evening news clips of far-away countries. It's that same exceptionalism that has people around the country fighting pleas and even ordinances to wear masks and what caused some to storm government buildings demanding an end to coronavirus restrictions.
Why? Because, damnit, we want our haircuts and we want them now! This is America, and our way of life can't be impacted by something as trivial as the first global pandemic in a century.
If there aren't concrete rules with firm consequences for breaking them, things won't change nor will they get better. Sports’ return will flounder if it's based largely on the thought that the players will do the right thing if asked and not mandated.
It's the same problem the PGA Tour has started to run into in just the third week of its restart. Commissioner Jay Monahan set loose guidelines, encouraging players (keep in mind these are professional golfers) to socially distance themselves on the course, avoid handshakes, not go out to eat and use the Tour fitness trailer rather than outside gyms. While top players Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson all have taken the virus as seriously as possible, reports trickled out during the first week back that some players ignored some or all of the guidelines.
The PGA's "bubble" was only as strong as the players' ability to follow recommendations. It's no surprise that a number of professional golfers, a number of whom have grown up in a country club atmosphere, have ignored the rules, choosing instead to do what they want. The PGA had its first positive test last week and two more followed this week. Some players, Koepka among them, withdrew this week because someone close to them tested positive.
Monahan offered stricter guidelines this week prior to the Travelers Championship, but they still were just guidelines. Those can -- and will -- be ignored by some golfers used to getting their way.
This brings us back to Brady, Garoppolo and NFL players skirting guidelines to prepare for a season they hope goes off as normal, even though there's almost no way a "normal" season happens amid the pandemic.
Brady shouldn't be scorned for the desire to work out and prepare. It's ingrained in his DNA like it's ingrained in many Americans who believe the economy should get back up and running as soon as possible, virus be damned. The myth of American exceptionalism teaches that we should persevere through all obstacles and that glory, wealth or whatever you desire will be there through the trials and tribulations.
And so, with only guidelines in their way, Brady, Garoppolo and the rest have plowed forward, working with teammates to develop chemistry, timing and study the playbook for the battles ahead. Many of us have cheered along, praising their commitment to their team in these trying times.
But there is no playbook for playing sports during a pandemic. Brady is a master at dissecting blitzes, elevating those around him and delivering in the clutch. He can do those things now by wearing a mask, social distancing and setting a good example -- as someone with a large platform -- of how best to act during a massive public health crisis. Brady, whether he likes it or not, can set the course for how his fellow players, the NFL and Americans at large conduct themselves as the crisis continues.
Everyone is yearning for normalcy. Sports will try to reemerge next month, with the NBA and MLS playing in Orlando, the NHL using hub cities and MLB limiting travel by regions.
The NFL will come next. Intent on doing things their way, playing a normal schedule and crossing their fingers hoping all goes according to plan. But if the NFL truly wants a season, strict rules must be put in place and adhered to. Guidelines will be brushed aside as nothing more than an inconvenience, and that can only lead to an outbreak and play stoppage.
We all want sports to come back. But until every American takes the situation seriously, Brady included, we haven't earned the right to have them back. Sports returning should be a celebration after coming together to eliminate the spread of a deadly virus. Instead, we're still haggling over whether you need to wear a mask and when bars can open up.
Brady isn't alone, he's simply the poster boy for a sad truth: We don't deserve to have sports return.