Fitting athletes into vaccine rollout plan a difficult balancing act

Canada's Erica Wiebe celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 75-kilogram freestyle wrestling competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Dick Pound isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but by starting the discussion on access to the COVID-19 vaccine, he has performed a necessary service for Canada’s Olympic and maybe even professional athletes.

When do we allow athletes to have access to the vaccine? Would you let them get ahead of you in line?

Before you explode… keep reading.

Pound raised some hackles when The Guardian detailed comments he’d made in an interview with Sky News in the U.K when he discussed the 2021 Tokyo Games and the issue of testing for athletes by saying: “In Canada where we might have 300 or 400 athletes -- to take an event of this stature, character and level… I don’t think there would be any kind of public outcry,” about ensuring Olympic athletes receive vaccines in time to compete in the Olympics, which were postponed last year and rescheduled to begin in July. Within days, Olympic athletes -- such as Kyle Shewfelt and Erica Wiebe – took to social media to state that they believe they and their peers must wait in line like everybody else for COVID-19 vaccinations… which was kind of what Pound said in the original interview.

Pound joined us on Writers Bloc on Friday and -- after saying he was bullish on the prospects of the games being held -- and expanded on his comments. Of course, he said, the most vulnerable members of society -- the elderly, front-line medical workers and essential services personnel -- must be the first recipients. On that he was unequivocal.

“But once you’ve gone through the urgent cases, every country is going to have to go through a triage exercise,” Pound said. “We have four million urgent cases in Canada but another 34 million (citizens). How do we allocate the vaccine left to administer?

“I just said (in the interview): ‘Look, someplace on that list you should account for Olympic athletes for two reasons: One, they will be travelling to pretty close to the epi-centre (of the pandemic) and you want to reduce the risk there. The second thing? The Olympics, after 18 months of this grind… we need some good news stories, and what’s a better good news story than 206 countries, 11,000 athletes coming together and celebrating these games and saying we can overcome these challenges’?"

“You have to figure out your priorities,’ Pound said. “Canada has to do that. Do you put the Olympic athletes last on your list of priorities? Or figure out where it’s going to be.”

We all have a stake in making sure our various levels of government finally figure out how to get jabs out there but let’s be clear: Pro sports, as well as amateur sports, have a great deal at stake in a smoother roll-out than we’ve seen. At this point, does anybody believe everybody who needs or wants a vaccine will be able to get one before next Christmas? Really? Not even allowing for another new strain to emerge? We were in high dudgeon when some of our dunderheaded leaders tootled off to the tropics for some R and R this winter. How are you going to feel if NHL, NBA or MLB players start being inoculated before you because… well, just because. The whole idea that allowing pro athletes to test was somehow going to cut into the public supply pretty much dried up quickly but that was testing: This is the magic bullet. This is the vaccine and we’re all more or less taking a number and waiting. Good luck trying to find somebody to spin that for you.

The NHL starts on Wednesday… and the Dallas Stars have already had their first regular-season game pushed back to the 19th from Thursday after six positive COVID-19 tests. The Vancouver Canucks cancelled practice Sunday after potential COVID-19 exposure; the Blue Jackets did the same thing on Friday.

The NBA is underway but on Sunday the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks had their game cancelled after the Celtics were reduced to eight active players and the Dallas Mavericks closed their facility after a positive COVID-19. On Saturday, the Philadelphia 76ers played with seven players because of coronavirus protocols. No wonder there are people around basketball who are talking about some sort of ‘circuit-breaker’ shutdown, or why some voices in baseball are reluctant to set a definitive start date, preferring to see how the vaccine roll-out goes or at least waiting for a time when it seems a little less sensitive to purchase great whacks of the stuff.

So this isn’t just a matter of an unfiltered Pound making spur of the moment comments. For the record, Pound went on to say he’d gladly give up his place in line for an Olympic athlete, even at the age of 78, and this is the crux of the PR work facing all sports. It’s not really a question of whether you’d be upset if a sprinter or rower or gymnast or NHL player got his jab before Grandma. It’s how you’d feel if that athlete got their vaccination before you.

THE LOOKAHEAD

• Monday: U.S. college football championship: Ohio State vs. Alabama, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami. They’re shutting down the mass vaccination site at the stadium in the early afternoon so college football can decide the identity of the nation’s best unpaid football team champion. Nice. Have at it if you must, but remember: An angel loses its wings for every NCAA college football game you watch. Watch too much of it and you’ll join Tommy Tuberville in hell. You’re better than this, no?

• Wednesday: Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs. Quebec’s team vs. Canada’s team. Sportsnet, 7 p.m. ET/ 4 p.m. PT.

• Thursday: Vancouver Canucks at Edmonton Oilers. This is first of many back to backs in the NHL schedule that could provide an early glimpse of how nasty stuff might get and what adjustments coaches will look to make. Or it could just be two tired teams skating in sawdust. Sportsnet One and Pacific, 10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT.

• Friday: Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators. Some thoughts on the Scotia NHL North Division: The Leafs will win the thing easily; a Canadian team still won’t win the Stanley Cup; the Senators are going to be the big, big, surprise and Tim Stuetzle will be the rookie of the year; The Canadiens will be the biggest disappointment. For what it’s worth. 7 p.m. ET

• Friday: New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Lakers. Zion Williamson scored 29 and 35 points in two losses to the Lakers last season but he has a better and more tested supporting cast this time around. Brandon Ingram’s a baller. Sportsnet, 10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT.

FAIR OR FOUL

• Fair: The PGA of America stripping the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey. No other sport is as closely associated with the U.S.’s insurrectionist president; no other organization has received less scrutiny from its media voices for cozying up to President Donald Trump. Truth is, all those pictures of Trump flailing away have presented the sport with a marketing nightmare, by their very existence pretty much enforcing what many of us think about the soul of the sport. Bad enough that tin-eared Gary Player and Annika Sorenstam accepted the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in a hidden ceremony at the White House while a mob was trying to lay waste to the U.S. Capitol; bad enough that Jack Nicklaus openly supported Trump's re-election. Those were personal decisions, albeit remarkably daft ones: Nicklaus could have refused to say anything and Player and Sorenstam could have demurred in accepting the medal.

Whatever: We now know what they’re about and what they value. Golfers supporting Trump? Next thing you’ll be telling me there’s gambling at Rick’s. So, good on the PGA if it really does make this move. Be nice to hear from members of Trump’s clubs now, wouldn’t it? Oh, and Bill Belichick? You’re now on the clock. Do the right thing and turn down your medal because it’s not something you want on your resume.

• Foul: Losing your mind over the NHL selling corporate names for its new divisions, because it’s the thin edge of the wedge, just like those tiny little helmet patches. There’s more branding coming to all our games, people… maybe not in the middle of the jersey stuff like soccer teams but, well, did you see the Chipotle branding on the shoulders of the U.S. Juniors? The Olympics won’t allow it, yet -- hell, Manchester United’s souvenir store at Old Trafford was shuttered during the 2012 Olympic soccer games, so you couldn’t buy a vintage Cantona jersey for 150 Euros but you could buy all sorts of Olympic crud -- but get ready for Speedy Glass sponsoring the Canadian sprint team. Soccer teams figured this out a long time ago: Fans want the most up-to-date jersey, so every three years they’ll buy a new one because the corporate sponsor name has changed across the front. Blame yourselves, folks: You keep falling for the ‘alternate jerseys’ scam.

• Fair: Putting a lot of credence in something said much earlier this off-season by former Miami Marlins President David Samson both on our show and his podcast, Nothing Personal with David Samson. Mets owner Steve Cohen was unique, Samson said, in that as the only new Major League owner, he hadn’t sustained any losses on operations in 2020 -- unlike every other owner of every other team.

So it makes sense that he and his team have been -- along with the San Diego Padres -- the most significant players in this slow player market. I’m also guessing that as a hedge-funds millionaire he’s done just fine on the stock market in this pandemic, like the Bezoses and Musks of the world. Cohen didn’t get where he is without understanding how to turn a crisis into money and it’s not as if he’s selling widgets. That’s why I’m in no way surprised that he traded for Francisco Lindor. First, my guess is there has already been some groundwork laid in negotiations on an extension and that there was even before the deal was made. Back-channels are a thing in baseball and let’s be clear: It’s only tampering when somebody tells somebody about it. Second, unlike the Blue Jays, the Mets and their owner know they will be in a position to make the biggest offer to Lindor even if he decides he wants to test the free-agent market next winter. Cohen can afford whatever certainty exists; not sure the Blue Jays are in that position.

Which leads me to…

THE ENDGAME

Bo Bichette is not Fernando Tatis, Jr. He is two-and-a-half years older, has played half as many Major League games, has 239 less at-bats and doesn’t have people swooning about his defence at shortstop. He is also arbitration-eligible in 2023, a year after Tatis. I think he’s going to win a batting title some day, but, whatever. That’s not the point. I’m not here to say that if Tatis, Jr., does in fact end up signing anything close to the 11-year, $320 million dollar extension that he’s reportedly discussing with the Padres, players such as Bichette are going to be the immediate beneficiaries.

As I said: He isn’t eligible for salary arbitration until 2023. But here’s the reason any team with a player of Bichette’s calibre is watching those negotiations: In a winter where not much is happening in terms of spending money on free agents, young players are still getting paid… just not as much as they really should be paid. Hear me out: the Major League Baseball Players Association needs to figure out how to get more money in the hands of players earlier in their careers, as the game skews younger and younger, the minor leagues get smaller and smaller and analytics have replaced emotion when it comes to contracts. Unfortunately, older players generally hold more sway within the association.

So, all I’m saying is keep an eye on Tatis’ deal because this is the last year of the current collective bargaining agreement and nobody really knows what the future holds. Except that Bichette will likely be riding Tatis, Jr.’s, contractual coat-tails -- especially after he wins his first batting title in the next two years.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network. He really doesn’t believe that the Maple Leafs are Canada’s team. Everybody knows it’s the Winnipeg Jets!

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