It’s July, and the plans are coming together: back to baseball; back to school. MLB has developed a 101-page protocol for safety and testing ahead of the abbreviated 2020 season. The university where I work has a slick, dedicated, return-to-school website with slide decks, FAQs, stock photography, and bulleted lists galore. Major League Baseball is well into its preseason—sorry, Summer Camp—with games set to begin next week. Most universities across the country are scheduled to start up again in mid-to-late August, with some students already back on campus in advance of the school year.
As both university professor and baseball writer, I’m struck by the resonance between the parallel worlds of baseball and higher education as both try to resume after being shut down earlier this spring. Despite their obvious differences, I see common ground in their attitudes toward a return to operations after a period of COVID-related suspension. Both institutions are rushing headlong into plans, but these plans are not firmly anchored to a spectrum of possibilities that include unhappy outcomes. At best, both MLB and many universities, in their published guidelines toward a return to business, are planning for hope.
If this phrase sounds vaguely contradictory or nonsensical, allow me to unpack it: When we think of organizations or institutions devising contingency plans, we see such measures as a bulwark, a foundation of certainty to ground and anchor the aleatory, unpredictable possibilities of the real world. In particular, health and safety plans are designed to absorb risk. There should be a plan for all worst-case outcomes, especially if such outcomes present a risk to the safety and well-being of their members, constituents, customers, or the general public. Many corporations and organizations have adopted the idea of a “premortem.” Instead of an idealistic, imaginative blue-skying, the premortem is a black-skying of sorts, an exercise designed to anticipate any and every possible disastrous outcome.
Planning for hope is different; it only addresses one side of this coin. What MLB’s and some university plans are doing amounts to planning for a best-case scenario. What’s wrong with that, you say? Why shouldn’t organizations be optimistic? Because the impression that “plans” convey invests them with a reliability that simply does not exist in the current environment of uncertainty. Ultimately, what screams out is what these plans can’t account for: Not simply the spread of COVID-19, but more importantly, the behavioral choices of thousands upon thousands of individual actors in their response to this spread. Optimism is great, but it can be deadly without a more sober counterweight—Wile E. Coyote can only run off the cliff for so long before he thinks to look down.
Both MLB’s Operations Manual and the plans of many universities are presented to reassure as much as inform. The calm, measured, procedural rhetoric of the planning documents—bursting with section numbers, bullet points, PDF attachments, infographics, and legalese—is designed to make you think this is all a Safe and Good Idea. My own university lists eight measures to promote campus safety; they range from the vague (“Implement contact tracing capabilities”) to the unenforceable (“Require face coverings”) to the aspirational (“Mobilize a public health communication campaign”). They give an impression of certainty, but they are built on an architecture of wishful thinking. Such documents are psychological as much as operational, they can easily deceive an uncritical reader that all contingencies have been considered and accounted for.
Consider MLB’s document. The medical and testing protocols seem specific enough—in a nutshell: players and other on-field personnel (designated as “Tier One”) will be tested every other day, will self-report health before reporting to facilities every day, and if tested positive will self-quarantine until two negative test results, at least 24 hours apart, are obtained. The testing was originally intended to be handled through one dedicated testing site in Utah, though another in New Jersey has since been contracted. (And even with two sites nominally up and running, it seems that other teams have found their own testing venues, dissatisfied with the delays and ambiguous results offered by the MLB-sanctioned labs).
After its release in late June, It didn’t take long to reveal some structural problems with MLB’s safety and testing plan. Unlike other leagues such as the NBA, WNBA, MLS, and NWSL, which are resuming their seasons in a geographically-confined “bubble,” MLB is both resuming a season in which teams will travel to other cities, visit other ballparks, use taxis and rideshare services, and stay in hotels. Even if players were to be under team supervision at all times, they open up a potential viral conduit to thousands of support staff and service workers. Moreover, the lag time between tests—especially for asymptomatic carriers—opens a huge window of possible infection. Case in point: the Royals’ Cam Gallagher played in an intrasquad game the night before receiving a positive test result, and it remains to be seen if he has spread the infection among his teammates.
The other problem is the open question of whether or not MLB can deliver what it promises. As Doug Martsch of Built to Spill sings, “the plan won’t accomplish anything / if it’s not implemented.” And implementation seems to be a much bigger hurdle than drafting the plan itself. We’ve already seen plenty of reports of tests being delayed (by that unaccountable Fourth of July weekend, no less!), testers not showing up to team facilities, and results that cast doubt on the reliability of the tests themselves. Players have been vocal about their frustration with the mechanisms of testing, and in addition to a number of players already opting out, the looming possibility exists that even more players will sit out a risky, truncated season if the testing snafus aren’t smoothed out.
Even with the extensive verbiage about testing procedures, flawed though they may be, the plan leaves a loophole wider than Angel Hernandez’s strike zone. When players are away from team facilities, they’re on their own. The gist of this is passed over so quickly in the operations manual that you could easily miss it. Section 2.6, “Conduct Outside of Club Facilities,” is a short paragraph that essentially boils down to a hopeful admonition: “MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from Club facilities, but will expect the Covered Individuals on each Club to ensure that they all act responsibly.” This is no more or no less than the honor system—a good way to seal a pact with a small group of people who are motivated to trust each other, but a terrible way to govern the behavior of approximately 1,800 young men, many of whom will spend most of their downtime in cities where restrictions on gatherings in restaurants, bars, and clubs are currently nonexistent.
The same three flaws exist in many plans developed by colleges and universities to manage the virus: Universities are not bubbles, there’s no guarantee that testing and tracing will run smoothly, and individuals will make choices detrimental to group well-being. Many universities plan to offer testing, develop contact tracing apps, require masks, mandate social distancing via class size, and enhance cleaning procedures. These measures are all well and good, but governing the choices of hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of young adults is simply not possible without stronger, more systemic safeguards—in other words, a coordinated federal policy. Encourage all you want, but absent any kind of reliable enforcement mechanisms—which would be dangerously repressive if they were possible at all—university safety plans are fundamentally rhetorical exercises.
Ultimately, the safety of both enterprises relies on the individual choices of people, most of whom are in a demographic that may embrace more risk, to themselves and others, in their actions. Relying on consistently selfless choices of young adults at the peak of their health, some with ample disposable income and no familial attachments, is (and let me say this in the most judgement-free way possible) not a viable premise for a successful plan. The widespread mockery of the headline of a recent story in the University of Michigan school newspaper is telling: If the “key to safety” resides in “student willpower to avoid parties,” then even the most well-considered, expert-consulted plans are next to useless.
It’s true that some teams and players are taking it upon themselves to be leaders and model selfless behavior for the overall good of the group. Andrew Heaney of the Angels has touted a team-wide commitment to mask-wearing in any public situation. The Blue Jays situation offers a telling contrast to the self-governing required of U.S.-based clubs: In a country that has acted more aggressively toward the pandemic, players and other team employees are subject to federal laws that threaten a fine of $750,000 and jail time for the violation of quarantine (the Blue Jays are currently contemplating moving their base to Buffalo for the 2020 season). The fact that it may take the self-governance individual clubhouses, not to mention the federal laws of another nation, to help a season proceed, offers a damning commentary on the league’s plan. It’s as if the safety plan is a house with gaping holes in the roof, and given a near-certain forecast of thunderstorms, MLB’s plan is to hope its occupants remembered to bring their own umbrellas.
If the plans are a logistical architecture built on half-full Solo cups, then why do they exist? Why can’t common sense steer these owners and commissioners and chancellors and university presidents into a safe port? Why is a baseball season proceeding, despite the already-visible cracks in the safety plan? Why are universities reopening to in-person activities when expert consensus suggests that rising infection numbers may spiral out of control come this fall and winter? Their decisions might be unwise from a public health perspective, but—of course—they are deemed essential for business.
Both MLB and universities increasingly operate on a funding model that seeks out short-term profits with a zombie-like instinct. Like plants drawn toward the light, the authors of these plans seek any possible means to generate revenue, or in the case of the conditions surrounding the pandemic, recoup actual and potential losses. MLB and its organizations may be solvent enough to weather a year without baseball, but its departure from public consciousness accelerates the slow bleed of fans whose interests will inevitably drift to other sports able to resume under these altered conditions.
This case is more immediately urgent for higher education, however. In the current fiscal landscape, colleges and universities need to re-open to staunch the bleeding away of tuition dollars and lure student-consumers to campus to sustain the army of service industries—housing, dining, recreation—that drive the university’s fiscal well-being. They plan for hope because the dim light exists that they might thread the needle and achieve the best possible outcome—and any other possibility can only spell disaster. In a public university such as the one where I work, state funding has decreased and tuition has increased sharply since the 2008 financial crisis, and that balance has not been reversed since. As a residential campus in a remote area, our university and local economy depends upon students paying tuition and spending consumer dollars, and even a semester of fully online courses will cause dramatic budget deficits.
Without the buffer of state funding to keep the enterprise afloat during the pandemic, there are two bad options: keep students away and hemorrhage money, or put students, faculty, staff, and other workers at risk to grab what little profit can be squeezed from the academic year. This is not an argument for bringing back students to campus, mind you. Universities are forced to decide if they are, first and foremost, communities or businesses. For all the rhetoric that purports to the former, no true community would intentionally put lives at risk to put precious drops of black ink on a depleted balance sheet. Ultimately, this isn’t a choice that colleges and universities—or any business, for that matter—should have to be making. Were there a coordinated federal response to the pandemic and a functioning social safety net to bring relief where it is most needed, institutions would not have to choose between social and fiscal prudence.
Thus, the plans for MLB and for colleges will depend on 90th-percentile outcomes to avoid failure, which can be defined in many ways: shutdowns, closures, sicknesses, deaths. There was no way that MLB could pull something off like the Bundesliga, or the KBO. All the backstops that other countries enjoy—a proactive federal government, strong support of public institutions, a sense of common society—are nowhere to be found in the U.S. at the moment.
I am, of course, not so naive as to think that MLB, and universities, have not gamed out the darkest timelines. There are likely the memos, e-mails, and executive summaries that the public will never see: How many infections, hospitalizations, and deaths will it take to shut it all down? What if this rush to resume actively and demonstrably makes the pandemic worse? Those outcomes are likely reflected in the slide decks for PR triage and letter templates to terrified or grieving parents that those in power hope never see the light of day.
As I write in mid-July, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the resumption of any kind of normalcy for the rest of the calendar year, at least. But it’s impossible to know what will happen. It may even come to pass that the hopeful plans yield their happiest outcomes—but even in the unlikely event that we look back on both MLB’s season and the coming school year as a success, make no mistake: planning for an unlikely hope is already an admission of systemic failure.
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