It’s a bad day to be Justin Turner. The Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman, who received a positive coronavirus test result during Tuesday’s Game 6 of the World Series, was pulled from the game, then returned to the field to take part in postgame celebrations after the Dodgers won the championship, has been savaged across the sports world, getting called “selfish” by Yahoo! Sports, “galling” by USA Today, and I’m not even going to check Twitter. Even Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, who semi-defended Turner’s presence on the field by saying that he technically became a free agent as soon as the game ended and “I don’t think there was anyone that was going to stop him,” acknowledged that it was “not good optics” to have him sitting for a photo, maskless, next to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor.
And then on the other hand there was Defector’s Albert Burneko, who beneath the superficially contrarian headline “It’s Not Justing Turner’s Fault” made the point that focusing the blame on individual behavior during an institutional crisis is completely the wrong way to go about things:
The bleak lesson of 2020—really, the bleak lesson of so much of the history of this society, but one the year 2020 seems hell-bent on teaching—is about the futility of individual responses amid institutional failure. This is how the real bad actors, the ones with the power to actually make significant changes, want things: with responsibility for containing the pandemic, or arresting climate change, or addressing systemic inequality and social injustice, litigated in society as matters of scattered individual choice. If baseball failed to contain the pandemic, well then it was because no individual person made the individual choice to thwart Justin Turner’s deeply human desire to celebrate the happiest moment of his life with the teammates who’d shared the journey with him, and not because Major League Baseball had a duty to provide and adhere to clearer and firmer protocols from the beginning. If a campaign rally doubles as a superspreader event, well, heck, we passed out masks, but it’s not like the literal president of the United States can just insist people wear them at an affair he’s hosting. If your preferred party loses an election, it’s because individuals selfishly withheld their vote, not because the party had, and fell short of, any responsibility to reach those people and earn their support. If the natural world swelters to death, well then it’s because not enough people bought electric cars or metal straws, not because neoliberal governments deferred to the corporate world for meaningful changes it wouldn’t make until forced by market imperatives, if then, if ever.
As several people raised down in the Defector comments, Justin Turner’s maskless run onto the field was a lot like college students’ maskless partying in the wake of reopening campuses — yes, it’s incredibly dumb, but when under the influence of alcohol/hormones/having just won the World Series, you kind of have to expect some people to do incredibly dumb things. Which is why we have rules against doing dumb things, and league officials and college administrators and U.S. presidents who are supposed to enforce those rules. It’s not Andrew Friedman’s job, in other words, to be as confused as Nigel.
And even as MLB has been frantically issuing statements that, hey, they told Turner to stay off the field and he wouldn’t listen, there are frankly more concerning things about the league’s actions here than how many security guards they assigned to the Covid isolation room. (Presumably if a fan had tried to run onto the field they would have done more than just ask them nicely to stop, right? But I digress.) Even if Turner had sat placidly and watched the celebration on TV, he’d been in close proximity to the rest of his team, often indoors in the clubhouse, for weeks prior to this, which according to both CDC and MLB rules meant everyone else on the team should be immediately quarantined. USA Today initially reported that “the team will have multiple rounds of testing before leaving Texas.” Instead, this happened:
How are we nearly a year into this and people are still saying stuff like this, we know they won't test positive for a couple days, and will start spreading it BEFORE they test positive.
— Gabe (@someguynamedg) October 28, 2020
Yes, indeed, Some Guy Named G, you’re not likely to start testing positive until at least four days after you yourself are infected, but you can be infectious that whole time. So Mookie Betts testing negative yesterday is no guarantee that Mookie Betts isn’t silently transmitting coronavirus to everyone else on that team plane, or wherever else he goes back in Los Angeles once he gets off it. Justin Turner risking infecting his teammates for the sake of a photo op with the championship trophy was reckless and impulsive; the Dodgers and MLB risking infecting even more teammates by sticking a whole bunch of potentially infectious people on a plane together was an institutional failure of responsibility.
Getting back to Burneko’s point: There’s a common defense by people in power who want to deny responsibility for their actions that they’re just giving the people what they want, whether that thing that they want is carbon-spewing cars or cigarettes or guns or the freedom to decide whether to wear masks or, yes, billion-dollar sports stadiums to buy tickets to. (This is an especially common gambit by the people who stand to make money from the questionable items being sold.) But the whole point of being in power is that you have power, and by your actions, you set the stage for what behavior by other people is not just acceptable, but possible. So while it might be fun to blame Justin Turner for being a lunkhead, or people in Maine for holding that deadly wedding, a public health crisis like this one only highlights how vital it is to have some mechanism for authority — whether it’s an elected government, an unelected league management, or an anarcho-syndicalist executive officer of the week — who can and will establish and enforce rules about not being a lunkhead. All else, as we’ve so recently been reminded, ends in bears.