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It Helps Society to Know Which Athletes Are Battling Coronavirus

The sports figures who have gone public with their coronavirus diagnoses are performing a critical task, even if it may be difficult to discuss.

Rudy Gobert. Donovan Mitchell. Kevin Durant. And now Sean Payton

They all tested positive for COVID-19. And when a celebrity gets swooped up by a pandemic, that is a headline, especially for sports publications (like this one) that have no actual sports to cover. But soon there will be so many names in sports, so many names in general, that we won’t be able to keep them straight. You will forget who had it and who didn’t; maybe Gobert’s name will endure in our consciousness because he was the first, but the rest will blend together. 

Someday, Durant will play basketball again, and a story about his time off will include an aside (we hope it’s an aside) about the coronavirus, and many of us will think, “Kevin Durant got it? I forgot about that.”

It is hard to know where sports fit into society in the time of the coronavirus. That will take time. But it’s easier to see how sports fit into the story of the coronavirus.

Sports, so far, have alerted us, alarmed us and shocked us, and we needed all of it. The shuttering of our arenas was the first sign for many Americans, perhaps most Americans, that society might shut down. Many of us get a sense of how long this might last from school closings and postponed sporting events.

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Sports have confirmed what was apparent before, if you were paying attention: Rich people have access to a much better health care system than everybody else. Whatever the specific machinations that led to quick testing for so many pro athletes, the bigger story is an obvious one. Millionaires get the care they need, or even that they think they need.

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An All-Star who needs surgery can usually schedule it a lot sooner than a truck driver. It is not surprising that NBA players got quick tests from private companies. It would have been surprising if that didn’t happen.

You can argue that athletes should stand in the same line as everybody else, on principle, and you would be right. But people with access to better health care generally take advantage of that access, just as people take advantage of their access to better education, better motor vehicles, better hotel rooms or better food. The outrage is merited. But most of it should be directed toward the lack of tests in this country, and a government that failed to prepare and continues to lag behind.

And now sports are showing us just how widespread this will be. Yes, of course: We should not need sports for that. There are charts and graphs everywhere you look, and medical professionals screaming about what will happen if we don’t practice social distancing. The numbers are easily available. But to a lot of people, they may seem opaque.

When you think of cancer, you probably do not think of any statistics and instead think of somebody you love who got cancer. It’s normal to need faces on a disease to make them seem real, and since we are still in a stage where you probably don’t know anybody personally who contracted COVID-19, each sports star who tests positive makes it seem more real.

Think of how many celebrities have tested positive already—not just the sports stars, but Idris Elba, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, and members of Congress. There will be so many more that it will make it seem like coronavirus is everywhere … which, of course, it is.

The risk is that, as most of these stars return to good health, people conclude that COVID-19 is easy to beat. Intelligent, informed people understand this is not how it works. You can recover yourself and still drive up the death toll by spreading it to others. This is why social distancing is essential.

As Payton told ESPN: “Take a minute to understand what the experts are saying. It's not complicated to do what they're asking of us. Just that type of small investment by every one of us will have a dramatic impact.”

The sad truth of all these celebrity coronavirus diagnoses is that we will inevitably have a celebrity coronavirus death. Let’s hope we don’t need that to follow the guidelines. Let’s hope that collectively, we are as smart as Sean Payton wants us to be.