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The Infernal Logic of Professional Sports in a Pandemic

Plutocratic interests and the coronavirus crisis have made “Value Over Replacement Human” baseball’s hottest new statistic.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“Please don’t take me,” said four-time Major League Baseball All-Star and Braves franchise first baseman Freddie Freeman, as he described to reporters the prayers he offered on his worst night of battling Covid-19. “I wasn’t ready [to die].”

The disclosure was as unexpected as it was raw. Freeman, after all, was not required by MLB’s coronavirus rules to identify himself as a player who tested positive, let alone to discuss his experience with the virus. These nondisclosure rules are underpinned by a ghoulish logic. It is not in the League’s interest for a marquee player like Freeman to test positive for the virus, let alone detail his battle with Covid-19, because MLB and its 30 aristocratic owners are both perpetuating and capitalizing on the unspoken secret of American sports: Fans are more likely to view the millionaire players as more entitled than the billionaire owners and, more significantly, have accepted that athletes dying for our entertainment is an occupational hazard. How acceptable that risk of injury or death is to fans exists not on a sliding scale of humanity but on a continuum of players’ talent and value to the team.

On the occasion of MLB’s much-delayed and highly anticipated Opening Day, it’s time for us to reckon with American sports culture, the way we’ve normalized the risks that athletes incur for the sake of our entertainment and how the glorified Moneyballification of sports—in which wonky former McKinsey consultants build dream teams based on the way statistics dance on spreadsheets—have all contributed to dehumanizing players into commodifiable assets. If the rampaging pandemic has brought a new innovation to this diabolical design, it’s the way this dehumanization now reaches down the organizational chart, drawing in “players” both on field and off, and of every asset class.

Call it “Value Over Replacement Human,” or VORH, which, in the dystopia that is 2020, has emerged as the summer’s hottest statistic; an Orwellian spin on Bill James’s Sabermetrics. For years, Value Over Replacement Player, or VORP, has been a foundational statistic in the quantitative analytics movement, a magic number revealing just how much hitters or pitchers contribute to their teams over replacement players who are either average or below average at any given position and at the plate.

As it has with so many other attitudes and systems undergirding the American way, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how the confluence of sports society’s worst tendencies—from turning a blind eye to the traumatic brain injuries and deaths suffered by football players as a direct result of the sport to plotting athletes on an X–Y axis of salary relative to production—has brought us to this moment. At a time when more than 140,000 Americans have died and the virus is spreading uncontrollably, we as a nation are ready for these athletes to potentially risk their lives because of some unprovable need that we, as fans, have for pastimes.

MLB isn’t even trying to hide VORH as its guiding metric for a resumption of play. In its 113-page operations manual for the 60-game season that starts today, the testing and reporting of Covid-19 cases within the League is based on “tiers” of people.

“The manual designates the different tiers of people: Tier 1 consists of players and on-field personnel, like coaches and umpires; Tier 2 is other essential personnel, like members of the front office or strength and conditioning staff; Tier 3 is other necessary workers, like cleaning crews, who do not come in contact with players and coaches,” The New York Times reported.

Last week, the Chicago Cubs issued a vaguely worded statement based on this human tier framework to share in some way why six people would not be reporting to practice that day. As the statement spread on Twitter, its wording stopped me in my tracks: “Chicago Cubs Manager David Ross and five other Tier 1 individuals are awaiting their completed Saturday test results and will not attend this morning’s workout.”

Hanging in the air is that appellation: Tier 1 individuals. Of course, the Cubs are the same team that in 2014, infamously, reportedly cut the hours of grounds crew staff—perpetual Tier 3 humans in the sport’s caste system—to avoid having to provide health insurance coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

Cleaning staff, clubhouse staff, trainers, groundskeepers, all of these people matter. They are real people with real families and real obligations. Every person in America is someone’s Tier 1 individual. It shouldn’t take a dozen Freddie Freemans getting infected and suffering from this virus to draw the attention or concern of fans or make us question why we should be entitled to nice things—like baseball—when we can’t even figure out how to get our friends and neighbors to wear masks and stay home if they can. But if it takes a player like Freeman disclosing his diagnosis and speaking honestly about his condition, then we should welcome that, so at least we know what athletes are up against; what we’re all up against.

Watching exhibition baseball games this week, I felt a familiar, conflicted dread. It was the same feeling I’ve had watching football since 2013, when League of Denial exposed the depth of the National Football League’s knowledge and cover-up of the health crisis among its players’ ranks created by the sport’s hard hits and laissez-faire approach to treating concussions.

Football is a sport that kills its players because of traumatic brain injury as early as the age of 18, and it’s a sport where privileged parents—including famous ones like LeBron James—decide their children are not allowed to play because it’s not worth the risk.

We know this, and yet we keep watching.

Putting National Basketball Association players in a bubble at Disney World or sorting MLB players into testing tiers so they can get on with the business of entertaining us, despite the threats of a global pandemic, isn’t new or unexpected, no matter how weird it might seem to watch games without fans in the stands or with piped-in crowd noise. Instead, we should accept—and take personal ownership of—the idea that players sacrificing themselves for our entertainment is a uniquely American condition and an extension of what we already have decided is socially acceptable.

What is the Value Over Replacement Human for any professional athlete or employee who supports them? I am afraid we’re about to find out.