All this talk of when the Premier League could resume in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the way the Bundesliga was resuming and Serie A was likely to, seemed to ignore one thing. The very thing that caused the French Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie and other leagues to conclude that playing the rest of their 2019-20 seasons was unworkable:
It isn’t entirely safe to play yet.
Perhaps it’s not safe at all. And maybe it turns out to be reckless.
What’s more, the players are being treated less as willing participants and more as pawns with no agency of their own because the incentives and pressures to finish out the season are enormous. Mainly, they boil down to the possibility that broadcasters will ask for some of their billions back – or not pay the final installments of their rights fees – in the absence of the games they were sold. Thus the Premier League, both blessed and saddled with the richest deals by far, has more on the line than anybody else.
That’s why it leapt eagerly at word from the British government that the league might be cleared to kick off again as early as June 1 – two weeks after soccer will be played again in Germany; two weeks before Serie A is aiming to return; and three weeks ahead of Major League Soccer’s proposed resumption in a Florida-based setup.
Premier League games would be behind closed doors, of course, and possibly in a few centralized and neutral locations. Players will also be encouraged not to come face-to-face and, with no apparent appreciation for the absurdity, to turn away from one another during tackles.
The lengths they will have to go to in order to begin practicing next week are even more burdensome: changing and showering at home; social distancing at all times; sessions of no more than five players; no tackling or spitting; temperature checks; a mask or snood at all times.
Yet British prime minister Boris Johnson’s “road map” to get back to something resembling Britain’s old daily life has been widely panned as cases and casualties continue to soar on the isles, now the worst-hit nation in Europe.
What really irked Rose, a Newcastle United defender, was the notion that soccer’s return was somehow in the interest of national morale – a rather transparent bit of spin when the business imperatives are so plainly obvious.
“The government is saying we are bringing football back because it is going to boost the nation’s morale,” he said on Instagram Live. “I don’t give a f--- about the nation’s morale. People’s lives are at risk. Football shouldn’t even be spoke [sic] about coming back until the numbers have dropped massively. It’s bollocks.”
A day earlier, Manchester City star Raheem Sterling had said much the same thing on his YouTube channel, adding that family members of his had died from the virus.
“The moment we do go back it just needs to make sure it’s a moment when it’s safe, not just for us footballers but the whole medical staff, the referees,” he said. “I don’t know how that’s going to work. Until then, I’m kind of, not scared, but reserved, thinking what the worst outcome could be.”
Two weeks earlier, Sterling’s fellow City forward Sergio Aguero had also expressed reservations, telling a Spanish TV station that “the players are scared. Especially because they have kids, families, maybe they’re with parents.”
Little seems to have been done to assuage the players’ fears, other than to draw up elaborate-sounding plans consisting of either impractical half-measures – turning your face away during tackles? – or solutions that aren’t really solutions. Practicing in groups of five while maintaining social distancing isn’t entirely useful in a contact sport contested between teams of 11. It feels only marginally more applicable than training on your own or kicking the ball around with a toddler in the backyard.
The only true solution is to wait for the pandemic to end, or to at least have abated to the point where the risk is infinitesimally small. England isn’t there yet. England isn’t even about to be there. The players know it. And they are the labor, the product and the brand, all rolled into one. They are the Premier League, not the executives, the club chairmen or the language in the broadcast contrast. They know they aren’t ready to return safely.
Listen to the players.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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