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COVID-19 and Sports: Black Athletes Should Not Be Subject to a New Tuskegee Experiment

Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC

On March 11, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, in the midst of his first all-star season, tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Afterward, the NBA suspended the season “until further notice.”

The day after that, Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell, also an all-star, tested positive. Around the same time, the impact of the virus was felt in college sports as the NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

That said, who were the canaries in the coal mine as the coronavirus metastasized in sports? Black athletes: Gobert, Mitchell and, afterward, the handful of other NBA players who tested positive for the virus. Some went unidentified, so it can’t be said all were black. But three-quarters of the league’s talent is black. You do the extrapolation.

Similarly, upward of 70 percent of the NFL’s athletic labor is black. Yet President Trump, who upon coming into office consistently expressed hatred for black players who protested on the field against unchecked police lethality against men like them, reportedly said in a recent conference call with league commissioners that the NFL should open as scheduled in September.

Major college football is upward of 60 percent black. Yet Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy and Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney argued in recent days that their games should proceed as usual because the college athletic industrial complex needs them and, Gundy added, the athletes are supermen who can withstand the virus.

The first utterance underscored the human girders that college football players, particularly the dominant black stars, are to the multibillion-dollar sport for which they are inequitably remunerated and by which they are vastly exploited. The latter belief stood to exacerbate a myth birthed in black communities that we are somehow immune to catching this illness despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Data mined recently showed black people in particular and people of color in general are getting struck by the coronavirus at rates disproportionately higher than everyone else. It is amazing that some in the black community forgot this bromide: “When white folks catch a cold, black people get pneumonia.”

Black athletes don’t deserve to be subjected to some sort of 21st-century Tuskegee experiment to restart our games before epidemiologists and virologists — not Trump, league commissioners or team owners — deem it absolutely safe to do so. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently affirmed, after a couple of French doctors suggested testing a vaccine on Africans, we are not the world’s guinea pigs. And that goes for sports leagues, too.

It is unclear whether sports fans will even want to fill stadiums and arenas for games until a vaccine is available. Are the concerns of the athletes, whom those fans would turn out to watch, not to be considered? Is this ancient Rome and our place of play the primal Colosseum?

“I’ve personally been thinking about, when they try to bring us back, I won’t be around until I know all the proper precautions are taken,” Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills said this week via text message Friday. “Everyone we come across needs to be tested. Until then, I don’t see how they can have us working.”

Stills’s resistance undoubtedly is the kind all leagues would face en masse from the players’ unions.

Who among us doesn’t want to get back to a pre-coronavirus life as quickly as possible? What, other than a pharmaceutical prophylactic to protect us from this virus, would be more soothing to the national psyche than the ability to linger at an event that forever brought us together in times of strife, such as our old national pastime of baseball or the national religion of football?

But no one is worth sacrificing for our return to some normalcy.

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