Nitashia Johnson / The New York Times

Dodgers fans were welcomed into Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas for the last rounds of the MLB playoffs, showing the league wasn't as serious about isolation as the NHL and NBA. A Dodgers starter would go on to test positive for COVID-19 in the final game of the World Series.

November 1, 2020

BULKELEY | Dodgers COVID-19 Scandal Emblematic of American Selfishness in Pandemic

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On Tuesday night, the newly-minted World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers found themselves at the center of the sports world’s latest faux pas. Third baseman Justin Turner, who had tested positive for COVID-19 just innings before the game ended, ran back onto the field to celebrate and ripped off his mask among dozens of Dodgers families, personnel and players. 

Wednesday morning, when the baseball world should have been lamenting the Rays’ poor coaching decisions, Turner was instead the subject of its ire. 

In a 2020 marred by pandemic and social tensions for months on end, how are we still getting things so wrong? 

What Turner did was painful to watch. He not only ignored security guards who asked him to remain in isolation but he also could not be bothered to enact the bare minimum courtesy of keeping his mask on while he joined the on-field celebration. He was around more than just his teammates — their families, Dodgers executives and many others were also a part of this celebration which Turner turned into a symbol of America’s failure to contain the virus.

In the wake of Turner’s intentional non-compliance with health guidelines, some teammates tried to turn the blame on Major League Baseball, saying that the bubble they instituted to protect players from COVID-19 was ineffective and not well-monitored. Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly alleged team personnel and media were able to leave the hotel to golf, thereby bursting the purported bubble concept. We also already knew that fans were allowed at these games — and that the roof was closed for three of the contests — making it not much of a bubble at all when compared to the NHL or NBA’s isolation techniques used earlier this year.

The poorly-executed bubble might explain how Turner could have contracted COVID-19 without breaking protocol, but it does not change the fact that even when he knew he had it, he exposed everyone involved in the Dodgers’ celebration.

Exposing MLB’s shortcomings does not shift the blame away from Turner: It shows that COVID-19-related failures are abundant and that all parties involved need to take responsibility. The entire situation has represented the attitude that so much of America holds toward the virus; the ‘it’s not that serious if you’re young and healthy’ rhetoric (even though some otherwise-healthy MLB players who have caught COVID-19 have developed chronic heart conditions as a result). Turner’s tweeting out “I feel great, no symptoms at all,” didn’t beg the forgiveness of fans, either.

Joe Kelly’s description of the “secure zone,” as he says the league called the bubble, should make fans wonder just how seriously MLB took the prospect of players catching the virus. And Justin Turner’s reaction to being diagnosed with COVID-19 echoed that sentiment as he emphatically exposed others to the virus — even those who are not necessarily young and healthy, like his manager Dave Roberts, who is a cancer survivor and with whom Turner took photos without a mask on during the World Series celebration.

If MLB only created a “secure zone” so as to make for good optics after an entire season of non-bubble competition, Turner tore down the facade of safety in one fell swoop. He should not have had the chance to catch COVID-19, and in this regard, it appears that the league failed him (it is not yet known exactly how Turner caught the virus). But that failure was amplified by Turner’s split-second act of disregard for others’ safety, effectively spoiling the Dodgers’ first championship since 1988.

Turner is a key member of a Dodgers core that had been eliminated from World Series contention by the eventual victor in each of the last three years. Having the chance to celebrate his team’s victory taken away from him was a cruel cosmic trick. But that doesn’t make what he did forgivable.

And, though some will argue that the people that Turner potentially exposed to COVID-19 would have been in his contact-tracing web anyway, they are missing the point. This isn’t about contact tracing and the annoyance of quarantining for 14 days. It is about the fact that Justin Turner knew conclusively that he had COVID-19, a virus that has killed 230,000 Americans this year, and he still went out and subjected a field full of people to the possibility of contracting it.

The public might not find out for certain whether Turner infected anyone during that celebration. Last week, The Commissioner’s Office put out a statement saying that a full investigation into the situation was underway. But if MLB does not enact severe consequences for what transpired Tuesday night, the league will have, beyond a doubt, made a statement that community safety is not a priority at all.