by Austin Chen, Sports Editor
photo courtesy of World Economic Forum
The first domino fell on March 9 when Italy’s top-flight soccer league, Serie A, announced that their season would be tentatively postponed until April 3 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the four days that followed, nearly every major top-flight European soccer league followed suit, from Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga to the English Premier League.
In America, it began with the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Minutes before they were slated to face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 11, Jazz center Rudy Gobert found out he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Every NBA game that night was canceled, and later that night, Commissioner Adam Silver announced the indefinite postponement of the rest of the season. Not long after, the NHL, MLB and NCAA shuttered their windows for extended periods of time.
Not counting the plethora of smaller sports leagues around the world, the closures meant that nearly 200 major stadiums and arenas turned the lights off and canceled hundreds of events in the space of less than a week. Suddenly, thousands of workers were in limbo. Some owners chose to dip into their vast stores of personal wealth in order to ensure the well-being of their employees. Others … not so much.
Let’s start with Jeremy Jacobs. He’s the chairman of the massive Delaware North company, which provides food and hospitality services to arenas around the world. Not only that, but he also owns TD Garden and the Bruins. According to Forbes, Delaware North made $3.2 billion in 2018, and Jacobs himself is worth an estimated $3.7 billion dollars. Despite this wealth, Jacobs had to be publicly shamed before dipping into those billions to help his employees.
The resulting “effort” was a slap in the face of workers everywhere. Jacobs set up a $1.5 million relief fund that will kick in only if and when the NHL season is officially canceled. Let me say that again, slowly. He offered up 0.04% of his net worth for a fund that is completely irrelevant until the NHL finally shuts the season down, which still hasn’t happened in the two months since games were postponed. In stark contrast, a team source for the Celtics announced that the team would be fully compensating their part-time game-night employees until the end of their regular season, which was April 15.
Unfortunately, selfishness and greed like Jacobs’s is far too common, both overseas and at home. Specifically in the English Premier League, many teams sought to partake in a government scheme that would pay 80% of the salaries of their furloughed workers. No issues at first sight, but it feels more than a little predatory when you realize that these clubs — among them Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur — are all worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Rather than utilize the resources such value implies, these owners would rather take money from the government that really should be going to organizations that need the help the most.
Not only are the team owners failing to take care of their workers, but Jeremy Jacobs makes another appearance here in England: Delaware North is the food and hospitality vendor of choice for high-profile stadiums such as Wembley Stadium, London Stadium and the Emirates Stadium. The Guardian reported on April 5 that workers from every stadium serviced by Delaware North were subject to canceled shifts and payments since the Premier League went on pause nearly a month prior.
More progressively-minded people may also be questioning the lack of intervention on the part of the teams that utilize the stadiums. The people currently suffering may not work for the teams directly, but they’re still the people who were hugely responsible for taking care of fans every week for nearly an entire season. Even a small gesture of appreciation would be enough, and yet, they get hung out to dry when things get tough? Something about this doesn’t sit quite right, especially when you consider that just Arsenal and West Ham United, the two teams that play in London Stadium and the Emirates Stadium, respectively, have a combined value of over £2.3 billion.
Luckily, not every story is a sad one. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been a leader in providing relief for his employees, going as far as reimbursing them for meal purchases made at local small businesses. His vow to fully take care of American Airlines Center employees came the same night as the first NBA games were canceled, outpacing fellow owners by miles.
He was quickly joined by NBA players themselves pledging relief money, as Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love led an effort to ensure Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse employees would be compensated. In New Orleans, Pelican Zion Williamson covered salaries of Smoothie King Center employees for the 30 days immediately after games were canceled. Back in Europe, a plethora of clubs, including Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, have pledged to pay match-day staff for extended periods of time.
However, some sports leagues are already preparing for a return to action. Germany and South Korea, two countries that have managed to “flatten the curve” and experience somewhat of a plateau of new cases, either have or plan to restart some sports. The Korean Baseball Organization had their opening day on May 5, and the Bundesliga is slated to resume matches on either May 15 or May 22. Of course, all it takes is one positive test to bring the whole thing down.
In ordinary times, the world turns to sports to escape the turmoil and chaos of the real world. What happens on a football pitch, baseball diamond or hardwood court cannot existentially affect a life, but it can serve as a microcosm for all those complicated, messy emotions there aren’t words for. It’s a conduit for feeling, for emotion. More importantly, it’s possible only with the help of thousands toiling behind the scenes. So to see billionaires trifle over the meaning of sport by endangering human lives out of some superiority complex isn’t just disappointing. It’s disgusting. If there’s one takeaway from this bleak time in sports, it’s that the backbones of these leagues are just as important, if not more, than the pretty faces up at the top.