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No, the Trump Administration didn’t make athletes “essential workers”

But a number of states did - and that’s actually bad.

Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan Announces Rule To Mitigate Flores Agreement Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last week, news broke that the Trump administration had designated professional athletes “essential workers” for purposes of accelerating a return of professional sports placed on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report was a tad overblown. According to this order from Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, the administration hadn’t actually declared professional athletes “essential.” Instead, the order allowed certain professional athletes to enter the United States.

Back in March, the administration issued Proclamations 9984, 9992, 9993, and 9996, orders suspending immigration into the United States purportedly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, what Wolf did here is exempt professional athletes from those orders.

In support of the Trump Administration’s reopening of the economy, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf signed an order that exempts certain foreign professional athletes who compete in professional sporting events organized by certain leagues, including their essential staff and their dependents, from proclamations barring their entry into the U.S.

“Professional sporting events provide much needed economic benefits, but equally important, they provide community pride and national unity,” said Acting Secretary Wolf. “In today’s environment, Americans need their sports. It’s time to reopen the economy and it’s time we get our professional athletes back to work.”

The order, signed on May 22, 2020, states that it is in the national interest to except aliens who compete in professional sporting events organized by certain professional sporting groups, including their professional staff, team and league leadership, spouses, and dependents, from entry restrictions laid out in Proclamations 9984, 9992, 9993, and 9996.

The order does explain why it is “essential” to allow professional athletes entry into the United States, citing the powerful economic benefits of professional sports.

Professional sporting events provide powerful first- and second-order benefits to the national economy, even if attendance is curtailed, due to advertising and broadcasting revenue, hospitality and food service requirements, and commercial cleaning needs. In addition, the sporting organizations that manage the professional leagues are situated to do so in a controlled manner, as they act as a single point of contact to manage player movement and the scheduling of events, and can take other measures to ensure player, staff, and fan safety is appropriately addressed. Professional live sporting events also provide intangible benefits to the national interest, including civic pride and national unity. Based on the benefit live sporting events provide to the national economy, and the need for these sporting events to have full access to their athletes, support staff, and team and league leadership, I hereby determine that it is in the national interest to except from Proclamations 9984, 9992, 9993, and 9996, aliens who compete in professional sporting events organized by certain professional sporting groups, including their professional staff, team and league leadership, spouses, and dependents.

This makes sense. The definition of what and who is an “essential worker” varies from state to state as an exercise of that state’s police powers. The common thread, however, is that they are employees determined by the government to have a role in maintaining the functioning of society during the pandemic - like healthcare workers and grocery store employees. Depending on the state, the governor may also have the power to order essential employees to report to work.

What should be noted, however, is that although the Trump administration didn’t actually declare professional athletes to be essential workers, a number of state governments did. Most notable among them is Florida, who deemed “Employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience” to be essential workers. The immediate beneficiary of this order was to allow for WWE shows to return.

WWE was deemed an “essential business” in Florida, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Monday, allowing the company to resume live television shows from its Orlando training facility and Full Sail University in Winter Park.

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According to Demings, WWE initially was not designated as essential and therefore was not exempt from the state’s shelter-in-place order, which took effect April 3 and runs through at least April 30. That decision was reversed after “some conversation” with DeSantis’ office, Demings said Monday during a news conference.

But it’s not at all clear just why professional athletes were deemed essential. The WWE touted the importance of sports on national morale during a crisis.

“We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times,” the statement said. “We are producing content on a closed set with only essential personnel in attendance following appropriate guidelines while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of our performers and staff. As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance.”

But in reality, that diversion isn’t exactly unselfish; as The Nation reported last month, WWE stands to lose a staggering amount of money were it to comply with the state’s original stay-at-home order. And that brings us to the second issue, which is that it remains unsafe for professional sports to resume. Those hoping that the WWE would be able to provide a roadmap for other sports to return safely were disappointed.

In response to the virus spreading, WWE relocated all of its TV shows to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, creating closed sets with limited personnel. Still, COVID-19 is currently undefeated at hide and seek, so it was only a matter of time before someone within the company tested positive.

An internal memo from WWE was leaked to Fightful which confirmed a member of the WWE talent pool tested positive for COVID-19 and appeared at the WWE Performance Center as recently as March 26 — the same day Roman Reigns asked to sit out this year’s WrestleMania due to health concerns.

As it turns out, WWE wasn’t even testing personnel for the virus, as doing so proved too complicated to implement.

As recently as Friday Night SmackDown, WWE had Michael Cole state that those talent serving as fans had been tested for the coronavirus. However, he did not specifically state what they had been tested for.

Dave Meltzer reported in the latest edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that WWE is not testing for COVID-19. Instead, they have been continuing with temperature and symptom checks.

Meltzer wrote, “Although it was hinted on the air that they were testing all talent for COVID-19, there was no testing done at all again at the tapings this past week past temperature readings and asking people if they didn’t feel well.”

So although states may want sports back enough to deem them essential, the reality is that there still is no safe way to do so. As the WWE is showing, sports in the era of COVID-19 cannot be safely begun with merely the stroke of a legal pen. We should not be cheering government orders making professional athletes “essential”; those orders merely provide a path for athletes to be forced to risk their lives for our entertainment.