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It’s time to suspend Serie A

Sports are supposed to be fun. Worrying about which of the players is going to suffer serious health problems isn’t that.

South Yorkshire Is Latest Northern Region To Enter Tier Three Coronavirus Lockdown Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

We’ve been writing about why we watch sports for as long as we’ve been watching sports, and nobody’s ever come up with a single answer. There’s the desire to subsume oneself to a collective. There’s a wish fulfillment aspect in seeing incredible athletes do stuff that almost nobody else in the world can. There’s the analytical aspect that allows for the discourse to veer off into advanced mathematics and philosophy. There’s the singularly human urge to create a narrative around every event we observe. There’s civic and cultural pride. There are hundreds of other factors.

What’s clear, though, is that we watch sports to escape from the parts of life that aren’t good. Even when your team is bad (a common enough occurrence for Fiorentina fans of late), kickoff means that you’re only concerned with the team’s badness rather than your own. Whether it’s in the stadium, in front of a TV with family and friends, or online with people who are strangers, you have 90 minutes to share triumph and anguish with countless other people.

That’s not a luxury we get very often right now. Even in games with partially open stadia, there are only a few hundred fans, and most of us at VN are far from Florence so it’s hardly a change of pace. But at the end of another day spent staring at the same four walls you’ve been staring at for months, alternating desperate ennui with the brief rictus smile to convince everyone in your Zoom call that you’re holding up fine, thanks; as the evening creeps in and you stay awake hours past when you should, mindlessly scrolling, because going to sleep means you’re that much closer to the agony of waking up and doing it all again; when you stare into your own eyes in the mirror and see no depth, nothing, just a flat reflection, that is when you need the escape that sports brings you.

And yet it’s past time to call a halt to Serie A.

The league has dealt with dozens of positive cases since Genoa confirmed 22 just ahead of their clash with Napoli three weeks ago. While it’s not clear if there have been any transmissions during gameplay, it’s hard not think that’s the case after the Partenopei were ordered to stay in Naples instead of traveling to Turin to face Juventus, resulting in a forfeit and one-point deduction that can only be described as a disgrace.

Nobody’s releasing a master list of how many players are currently infected or in quarantine. I’ve put together my best current estimate below based on the information that clubs and reporters have made public, but it’s probably not correct. There could be false positives in this list, and (perhaps more likely) there could be carriers who haven’t tested positive. More importantly, there could be any number of teams that have suppressed the news of staff testing positive, as only four Serie A teams have confirmed cases not among players. Finally, this is counting current positives only and doesn’t include folks who’ve recovered.

That means that anywhere between 8.6% to 12.8% of the players in the league have coronavirus right now. Even if they’ve all caught it immediately, that means that every other player in the dressing room is at risk; lest we forget, Covid is an unbelievably infectious disease that can linger in enclosed spaces for hours, according to the CDC, and we’re finding growing evidence that reinfection is a real and serious concern. On a larger scale, infection rates are spiking in Italy right now with 15,199 confirmed new cases and 127 deaths on 21 October; those are increases of 88% and 53%, respectively.

Since the virus tends to be more dangerous for older or immuno-compromized people, you might think that professional athletes are perhaps at the least risk of any population. After all, these are largely young, extraordinarily healthy people. While we still have no idea what the long-term effects of this disease are, we have indications that they aren’t good. For example, a study conducted among college athletes in the Big 10 found that 35% of those who’d contracted the virus had also developed myocarditis, which carries enormous health risks, especially for athletes who run long distances at high intensities. That describes soccer players precisely.

Given calcio’s track record of morally repugnant decisions in sports, it’s no surprise that Serie A’s governing body has no problem putting the lives and livelihoods of its most visible employees at risk. In case you’re wondering about the danger of sports to athletes, though, consider that prime minister Giuseppe Conte recently announced that all youth and amateur soccer is postponed indefinitely for the safety of the players and their families.

While Serie A (and Serie B and C) teams certainly have greater resources than a local Sunday league side, the risks are the same. If the top levels were so capable at limiting transmission and spread of coronavirus, roughly a tenth of Serie A players wouldn’t be infected. Instead, the league, the broadcasters, and the clubs will continue to turn massive profits off of the players risking everything.

Many of the players doubtless want to play as well. Besides wanting to earn their wages, remember that these are people who’ve been training to do a very specific thing for their entire lives. Many of them define themselves by their participation in the sport and have the confidence in themselves and their bodies that you’d expect from young, wealthy, world-class professional athletes. They would likely recover within a few weeks, although we don’t know if they would be able to play at high levels again without putting themselves in incredible danger.

As former Fiorentina and current Genoa player Valon Behrami, who contracted the virus last month, said, “I was scared. There is the fear of not being well, of infecting your loved ones, because being a football player at that point is not your first concern. You are not an ill player, but an ill person who feels fragile.”

As long as the cash keeps moving, there’s no way that Serie A calls a halt to league play. There’s too much at stake for the league to worry about the health of its players. Even if a player dies, we’ll likely just see a week-long suspension of play, a moment of silence before kickoff, and black armbands as everyone else takes the pitch. It’s ghastly, and it’s why the league needs to shut things down for at least a month to get everything back under control.

I think about this and realize that Serie A is no longer an escape from this miserable world for me. I still watch the games, I still take notes, I still try to make jokes on Twitter, but I’m no longer entirely focused on the match. There’s a little space in the back of my head wondering which of these players has the virus, or is going to contract it. There’s a voice whispering that one of these young people is, either now or in a few years, going to have a heart attack brought on by complications from Covid, and that I’m watching the start of that process. That’s the sort of stress that I need an escape from.