This baseball season started July 23, and by July 27, there were serious questions about whether or not it could continue safely. After the first weekend of games, news broke that several players on the Miami Marlins had tested positive for COVID-19.
It meant canceling and postponing games and led to questions about whether the season should stop. This past weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals were in the same situation, though not quite as severe as the Marlins, and that too has shut down games for them and other teams until at least this Tuesday.
We won't get to know for certain how the virus spread through these two teams, but there's healthy speculation that for one team it might have been the result of players heading out to bars after games and for another, some of them going to a casino.
I think this points us to one of the fundamental difficulties of life during a pandemic. There are different ways to get people to do things they don't particularly want to do (like staying in their hotel room instead of going for a drink), but I think they generally boil down to self-discipline or directive from authority.
In both cases, sometimes we do things for fear of punishment or hassle. For example, some of us probably buckle our seatbelts and drive the speed limit more because we don't want to deal with being pulled over than a desire for safety. I think what we're seeing play out in baseball, and in our society at large, is a clash of people's innate desire to decide for themselves with the need for an authority to guide people to the right decision.
In baseball, the players received an 113-page document outlining the protocols for the 2020 season, some of which included guidelines for how they should conduct themselves when away from the ballpark. Most of them are following those guidelines, and clearly some are not. Those who are following the rules are probably doing so because they want to keep themselves safe and because they want to keep the season from being canceled. They have the discipline to resist doing the kinds of things they would typically be doing before and after games. Others have received the directive but won't abide.
There's a case to be made that maybe Major League Baseball failed to give players clear or strict enough rules, but I think that runs against how humans best operate. We're in a healthier place when we're exhibiting self-discipline (or, "discipline equals freedom" as Jocko Willink puts it), but the tricky thing is that there's no real way to imbue that quality in people who don't want it or aren't ready for it.
Outside of baseball, I think this is a part of the reason why mask-wearing feels like it's become politicized and why there's growing quarantine fatigue. Wearing a mask and mostly staying home might be the healthier and smarter things to do, but I suspect a lot of people are bristling more at being directed to do those things more than they are the acts themselves. They're not really protesting wearing a mask, they're protesting being told what to do.
And this is how humans are, be they baseball players trying to follow vague protocol or citizens heading out to the grocery store and putting on a mask as they walk in. We're wired to choose, think, and fend for ourselves. I believe we're wired for autonomy and agency, and that means that we will always struggle with directives to some degree. This is not a criticism or even a flaw — blind compliance and complacency scares me more than rebellion — it's just a part of who we are and what makes us tick.
According to a study done by University of Richmond professors L. Elizabeth Crawford and Kelly Lambert, a part of the increase in anxiety and depression that we've seen in the last couple of decades has come from a sense of diminished control over our environment. Too many things are automated, too many decisions made for us (you can't fully choose what shows up on your Facebook or Instagram feed, Amazon recommends certain products to you and buries others, and so on).
Leaving decision-making up to people does mean that sometimes they're going to do selfish and destructive things, but that doesn't make them selfish or destructive people. A strong sense of discipline makes us better people, but it means that we have to allow for the times when that discipline falls short.