Bradford William Davis: There's an essential difference between 'essential workers' and athletes

©New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The concept of an essential worker is simple enough for an average Joe to comprehend. They are laborers who provide services so critical to society’s most basic needs, their absence would immediately compromise our ability to live.

Grocery baggers and stockers continue to work so you can get food when you’re hungry. Doctors, nurses and cleaning crews show up every day in case you get sick, especially when everyone is getting sick. The police patrol the streets so the wrong kinds of people stay away from the Central Park Bramble.

But if a beloved major sport came back tomorrow, few would bang a steel pot outside their apartment window to celebrate Giannis dunking on LeBron.

But Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, instead, flattened the needed distinction between essential work and everything else by exempting certain international athletes, sports staff and their families from a strict border closure — a closure supposedly enacted to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Wolf’s move clears the foreign stars of the NHL, NBA and MLB to race back to the United States as if their pucks, balls and gloves carried the cure.

“Professional sporting events provide much needed economic benefits, but equally important, they provide community pride and national unity,” Wolf said in a statement announcing the order. “In today’s environment, Americans need their sports. It’s time to reopen the economy and it’s time we get our professional athletes back to work.”

Days later, when announcing NHL’s relaunch, deputy commissioner Bill Daly rightly interpreted the order as one that all but declared his stars “essential personnel.”

Stay at least six feet away from Wolf, because everything coming from his mouth is poisonous.

First: Americans don’t have their sports because of “today’s environment,” which is a pandemic that has killed over 100,000 Americans. (Some of them, like Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, were big sports fans.)

Second: It’s easy to forget that sports helped the country not by coming back to work, but by helping others understand the need to shut down.

In early March, Jazz center Rudy Gobert downplayed the pandemic almost as much as the President of the United States, fake coughing during a press conference until right before a March 12 game, when he tested positive for what he thought was a “hoax.”

Gobert learned his lesson and later apologized on his Instagram page: “I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously. I will do whatever I can to support using my experience as (a) way to educate others and prevent the spread of this virus.”

The NBA understood Gobert as the seven-foot canary in the coalmine — canceling the Jazz game, then pausing the season as the coronavirus began to spread through its locker rooms. The next day, the NHL, MLS and MLB postponed their seasons, followed by NCAA canceling March Madness.

The domino reaction reminded regular people that COVID-19 was not a foreign abstraction, but a present threat. Yes, a threat that many public health officials, like those in local health departments across the country, including New York’s, had for too long, known to be true. But better late than never.

If the store that sells your food closes or the farm that grew that food shuts down, the difference between true “need” and what Wolf described would present itself immediately. If you are alive and well enough to read this, then by definition, you don’t need live sports in any literal sense. Wolf probably does not mean that people literally need sports to live like they need air to breathe, but it’s all the more reason not to change the law for a figure of speech.

Reopening sports, and the economy as a whole, is a necessary part of our recovery, but only if it’s done at the right time. We know this because the economy took too long to shut down and we saw what happened next.

A Columbia University analysis found that if the U.S. instituted broad social distancing measures — some of them presumably concerning a pro sports shutdown — on March 8, the country could have prevented around 36,000 deaths from COVID-19 and avoided at least 700,000 fewer infections.

Wolf isn’t sending his imaginary class of essential workers to heal us, just to numb sports fans from grappling with the worst of the pandemic. The cycle of doing too little, too late, then using sports as a balm will repeat itself until everyone but your grandma and bus driver attain herd immunity.

Athletes are not actually essential workers providing an essential service in the way that the country should legislate. Even still, there’s no denying one small, deceptively employed part of Wolf’s statement — sports does provide some financial benefits.

I personally feel those benefits because I was hired to cover sports — live sports, not just “The Last Dance.”

You might subscribe to the Daily News because of our sports coverage. If so, we appreciate that because our advertisers do, too: They know you start with the back page, not the front, and price their products accordingly. But our already precarious system collapses without LeBron, Serena or Judge doing the things that make you spend your time and money to enjoy it.

This is one reason why I’m personally eager for a context where sports are safe enough that everyone from athletes and stadium workers to fans, aren’t unnecessarily put in danger.

Wolf doesn’t need sports as much as I do. He definitely doesn’t need sports as much as the thousands of others reliant on hourly ballpark wages or residual fan commerce, no matter how much Mitch McConnell brags about having Rob Manfred on speed dial to tell him otherwise. Instead, they need to curb stomp the curve on American soil until that ground is ripe enough for sports to be played safely without diverting essential resources to non-essential businesses.

Sports commissioners could be creative and use their leagues’ financial and operational muscle for the public. Have the leagues process the tens of thousands of tests that MLB claimed they would provide for their athletes, coaches and front office workers — but not their porters and bus drivers — every week, for regions that actually need them. Most states aren’t testing enough people to effectively track the spread, so convert team owners into essential workers.

Until then, maybe they could take a page from an unlikely source, the French-born Gobert, the worker who kicked this all off. By learning his lesson, he sent our country exactly what we need.

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©2020 New York Daily News