After the last two months, it might appear as we live in a world where time has been rendered fairly inconsequential. However, for those keeping track it has been almost one month since April 28th, when the French Minister declared that all large public events would be canceled until September at the earliest. This essentially meant that the Ligue 1 season was suspended indefinitely, and just a couple of days later PSG was declared champions for a ninth time. A deserved but muddled sort of distinction in the face of such maddening uncertainty. They weren’t the only football league in Europe to do this. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scotland all joined or preceded them. But Ligue 1 was the largest and seemed to be setting a tone that the rest of Europe would eventually follow, whether they liked it or not. But they never did.
It has been a month since Ligue 1 was canceled. Since then the Bundesliga has played two rounds of matches, La Liga has announced a return on June 11, the English and Italian leagues are poised to return in June. In America, NASCAR and UFC have returned, pro wrestling never left, and the NBA, NHL, and MLB are actively planning for July returns. Quite frankly it has become clear that Ligue 1 may turn out to be the most high-profile sports league in western civilization to give up its season without even the slightest inkling of a fight.
It can be messy and uncomfortable to talk about this disease. But it is important to set up a context that sometimes gets missed in mainstream coverage. In Italy, where the virus first appeared in Europe, the number of deaths for people under 60 years old was 1,448. That is out of about 32,000 deaths. Drop that age range to under 50 and you have 347 deaths. Drop that age range under 30 (the prime age of a footballer) and the number is 18! Divide that by 32,000 and you get a death percentage of 0.0005625 percent.
In New York the total number of deaths is 23,391. The total number of deaths of people under 60 is 3,481. Drop that age range to under 50 and you have 1,237. Drop that age range to people under 30 and you have a total of 101. Divide that by 23,391 and you have 0.0043 percent of the deaths. Now, also consider that 89.7 percent of New York deaths had co-morbidities like Diabetes, Hypertension, Hyperlipidemia, and Coronary Artery Disease. Now take into account that 83 of the people 20 to 29 who died had diabetes, 71 had hypertension. Every life is important, every death remembered. But when we are talking about saving the economy from the equivalent of a nuclear bomb, context and perspective does matter.
And in France, the fatality rate for Covid-19 for people aged 15-44 is 0.1 percent, and 2.4 percent for people aged 65-74. Now remember, at no point have I given an opinion. I am just stating statistics that you might not know if you have been watching cable news or reading Twitter. All the millennials have an equal or better chance of dying of a stroke or dying in a car crash. According to a survey from the law firm of Shapiro and Sternlieb, “88 percent of millennials admitted to engaging in dangerous behavior such as texting while driving, speeding, or running red lights. No other age group engaged in these risky behaviors with such regularity.” So yes, the same people you read freaking out on Twitter are way more likely to die because they were texting their friend on the highway than from coronavirus. And yes, this goes for millennial footballers as well. By no statistical measure are they “risking their lives” by playing sports during this pandemic.
Believe me, I can already hear the hate coming my way. Yes, I understand that the disease can be spread person to person. Yes, I understand that these athletes and young people can give the disease to older, or immune-compromised relatives. I live with older relatives, and I take precautions to not stay in sustained physical contact, share things, or breathe on them. We know how this disease spreads and we DO NOT have to pick between our economy and our lives. It is a false choice perpetuated by “pearl-clutchers” and “moralizers” that almost always have an agenda beyond human life. You can be Sweden, Japan, or South Korea, and not be called “grandma killer” or “capitalist slave”. Let me put it another way. We did not climb down from the trees millions of years ago and wander beyond the plains of Africa because we were afraid.
Most people at this point understand that and are taking precautions. Most people are not scared millennials who are afraid of their own groceries. If us normal people can do it, so can multi-millionaires. If the average schmuck must go to work, so do the superstar athletes. And after all the hard work the essential workers did to keep our vulnerable populations safe and healthy, they deserve to come home and watch some live sports if feasible.
But in France, they will not be able to do that at least until August. Which is not that far away but it did not need to be that way, especially not on April 28. Because what all the facts are telling us is that with testing and social separation you absolutely can play sports. Germany has done it, it is not the same without fans, but that is not really the point. Nor does everyone have to play. Players with diagnoses of diabetes, asthma, and other conditions should not only be allowed to sit out but be paid in the process. Older coaches should be allowed to stay at home and coach remotely with younger assistants running practices and roaming the touchline. Nobody is forcing anybody to do anything, but the choice should be made with the full spectrum of facts and the input of all parties involved. Ligue 1 and its players were not given this option.
Only days before Ligue 1 officials were reportedly discussing return-to-play protocols that were very similar to what Italy, Germany, and Spain put together for its athletes. They were not perfect and absolutely were disruptive but were necessary to allow things to progress. By all reports the French Ministry was going to give the go-ahead, until the day of the announcement when they didn’t, catching the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) off guard and forcing them to quickly come to a decision on how to “conclude” the season. And keep in mind the Ministry pretty much had the facts that I presented above. They knew this did not affect young people in the same way, and they knew that it was possible to test and at least make an attempt. They just did not care, because this was not about safety, it never was.
Ligue 1 is considered by many to be the fifth-best league in Europe. This is not by coincidence. The French government simply doesn’t care as much about sports like the other European countries. In countries like Spain and Italy where the outbreak was arguably worse, they worked with the FA’s to try and get the leagues up and running. It was rather more like a partnership rather than in France where Ligue 1 seemed to be waiting on the Ministry to make its decision without a scintilla of meaningful input. Ligue 1, Canal Plus, and beIN Sports had signed an agreement to continue the TV rights payments when they returned to play, there is no way they saw this coming. French clubs were eventually able to get bank loans to avoid total collapse but the keyword there is “loans,” they must be paid back. Some clubs won’t be able to and will collapse down into the dregs of the French football pyramid. Make no mistake that French football will suffer dearly the next 5 to 10 years based on this decision. PSG will dominate more than they already are, and that is not good for anybody. Olympique Lyonnais missing out on the UEFA Champions League due to a technicality puts them in financial straits that could put them into regression and rebuild. Marseille was already in a precarious financial position. This is just bad all the way around. And it did not have to be this way.
The French government had time, it has a month to get training camps running, and to see how the virus progressed or regressed. They could have pulled the plug anytime in that month, at any sign of trouble. But seeing how it is going for the rest of the leagues that probably would not have happened. To turn a phrase, if France President Emmanuel Macron and France Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had waited two weeks to make a decision, we would be watching French football in June instead of August 22. And if their sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, wasn’t spineless, we’d probably have a true finish to the 2019-2020 Ligue 1 season. Now this isn’t a catastrophe of real-life proportions. Nobody died because of this decision, although thousands will lose their jobs because of it. But it was the wrong decision. It was the wrong decision because it was made too early. It was the wrong decision because it was not made in consultation with the whole of French football. It was the wrong decision because in hindsight it turned out to be the wrong decision. And by the way, it was the wrong decision because it wasn’t about health, it was about apathy and convenience.
A sports league is only as valuable as its perception. By canceling the season the way they did, the French government stated plainly that they don’t care about football, nor the people who play it, watch it, or profit from it. Is football the most important thing in a health crisis, no. But for millions it is an escape, a route to happiness in rough and difficult lives, it is a way out of ghettos, and horrible childhoods, and the great equalizer in a world where too often our poor and downtrodden are kicked repeatedly until they give up and die. It wasn’t the French government’s job to make sure football was played at all costs. It was however their job to give it every possible chance to return in a healthy way. It was thrown out, discarded, made non-important. French club football may stabilize financially, but it will never recover from being rendered culturally irrelevant by an ambivalent government.
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