Tell Me Again Why I Should Feel Sorry For Athletes During All Of This?

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

When the articles started coming, about ten days ago, I didn’t think much about them.  Articles lamenting the premature end of college athletic careers or, worse, professional athletic careers, due to the coronavirus.  Sad, for sure, that athletes who assumed they had games or entire spring seasons left were now facing the reality that their time as athletes had ended — without fanfare, “Senior Days,” or even that knowing final moment on the court/field with the knowledge that this was it so best to soak it all in.  On the surface these portraits were heartbreaking.

Thinking more deeply about them, though, I realized that that was the idea.  To break our hearts, to cause us to empathize.  Which, to a point, is certainly not a terrible thing.  But what/who are we empathizing with here?  We’re all in a terrible position right now, no exceptions.  Each of us has already lost something due to the quarantine.  These articles, then, could really be about any of us.  But, of course, they’re not.  They’re about a small segment of us – ones who are, relatively speaking, more privileged than anybody else.  So why, again, are we singling them out, of all people, for our sympathy?

It’s not that I dislike these athletes.  I don’t.  It’s just that I’ve got more important things on my plate right now.  The fact that a Penn softball player won't get to play this year is so far down the list of things I have the bandwidth to care about that I’m not even sure it makes the list at all.  And yet when I read that article, or really, the several just like it (not to pick on that one as it’s no worse than any of the others), I feel as if there’s something wrong with me that it makes me angry rather than sympathetic. 

I’m sure the writers of these pieces were well meaning and, god knows, there’s not all that much for sportwriters to write about these days, but these sorts of articles are dangerous in that they normalize the idea that the privileged among us (however you define it) are somehow entitled to a life without consequence.  It’s why we don’t revolt en masse when there’s another billionaire bailout funded with money collected from taxpayers scraping to get by and why the protests aren’t louder when we similarly throw money at these same people to cover their stadium expenses when they have the funds to do so several times over.  

And it’s why we sort of feel sorry for Ivy League softball players — who were no doubt the beneficiaries of a thumb on the scale in the admissions office merely because they played softball — when they’re robbed of the additional glory of participating in Ivy League sports to go along with the Ivy League educations they’re already benefitting from.  Sure, these softball, basketball, lacrosse, players are hardly the equivalent of the billionaires running the banks and building the stadiums, but privilege comes in many shapes, forms and sizes.  It’s the idea that the rest of us should feel sorry for them that they didn’t get the opportunity to take advantage of 100% of their privilege that’s the problem.  And it’s not a small one.

We’re all feeling the pain right now.  Of isolation, of deprivation, of missing out on the things that mean so much to us.  In this way the quarantine has equalized so much that has heretofore been unequal.  Let’s not trivialize our own losses and the ones of our loved ones by magnifying the relatively trivial ones suffered by those who now won't be able to kick, shoot, or catch a ball one final time.

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