Dan Sutter: Sports and COVID risk

Photo Courtesy: Dan Sutter

Sports across the world are beginning restarts. Germany’s top soccer league resumed in May, while NASCAR, the UFC and the PGA tour are back underway. Yet are sports truly worth risking a deadly illness?

The assumption of risk provides a guiding principle. Adults should be free to engage in risky activities. Voluntary, informed consent makes many activities acceptable; boxers and UFC fighters would be committing felonies against unwilling participants. Sports participation involves numerous risks, of which COVID-19 could be one.

Pro athletes are well compensated, so a stronger case exists for resuming pro than college sports. In 2019, baseball’s minimum and average salaries exceeded $500,000 and $4 million respectively. Yet because we allow 18-year olds to join the military, I think college athletes should be able to accept COVID-19 risk if they choose.

Sports are group activities, raising a thorny issue. A league will either return to action or not. Dealing with risks of death is a fundamental and personal part of life. In America we believe that people should get to make fundamental life decisions for themselves. For instance, as restaurants reopen, people can choose whether to accept the risk.

All players must live with a league’s decision. For some the league decision will differ from what they would choose based on their personal values. The league’s decision may appear coercive; for example, NBA players may feel “forced” to report for the league’s restart. Yet this is not truly coercion. No player will face jail time for refusing to play; they can give up their contract and roster spot.

As leagues grapple with resuming play, remember that safety is a luxury good. People generally choose more safety as they become richer. Star players worth millions of dollars may be unwilling to accept much risk. We should expect leagues to exercise abundant caution and some stars to step away.

Events with few or no fans seem likely for the near term. Consequently, leagues relying more on gate receipts than television broadcast rights should be less likely to restart. College football depends more on ticket revenues (including donations tied to tickets) than the NFL, and the NCAA seems unenthusiastic about playing games with empty stadiums.

Televised sports will recover one of the pandemic’s significant economic losses. Economists call the difference between the value of a good or experience to people and the price they must pay consumer surplus. Millions of Americans watch and follow sports while paying very little to do so; sports generate a lot of consumer surplus. The cost of the sports shutdown far exceeded its contribution to GDP.

One factor receiving surprisingly little attention is athletes’ benefits from competition. For example, athletes train for years to compete in the Olympics. Missing out on the experience of a lifetime seems like a significant loss. The Summer Olympics have not been canceled, just postponed to 2021.

The potential availability of a vaccine or cure matters significantly for restarting sports. President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed promises a vaccine by December. As a Troy Trojans football season ticket holder, I would favor starting the season in January if we will have a vaccine.

States’ business closure orders this spring exempted “essential” businesses. Perhaps sports should be essential. Workers in health care, meat packing, grocery stores, and package delivery have been expected to work despite COVID-19. Meat packing plants have proven particularly vulnerable yet were ordered by President Trump to remain open. Many essential workers probably never realized they were working such potentially dangerous jobs.

Other Americans, myself included, have been working safely from home. Yet we rely on essential workers putting themselves at risk; college classes can only go online if someone keeps the power grid and internet functioning. Sports comprise an important part of the lives of many Americans. A resumption of sports could be viewed as essential for the well-being of essential workers.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.