Justin Turner could receive punishment for putting others at risk for COVID-19
Turner was removed from Game 6 of the World Series after testing positive for COVID-19, but returned to the field after the game to celebrate – without a mask.
Last night, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association are nearing a resolution on the Justin Turner issue which could include “potential discipline.”
In case you missed it, the “Justin Turner issue” refers to the final game of the World Series during which Turner was removed after it was revealed he had tested positive for COVID-19. Game 6 occurred on a Tuesday. Turner’s test from Monday came back inconclusive on Tuesday, which prompted MLB to have its Utah lab expedite his Tuesday test. That was the one that came up positive. MLB got news of that in the seventh inning. They then passed the news along to the Dodgers and told them to remove Turner from the game. Turner did not go out to third base for the start of the eighth inning.
The Dodgers went on to win that game 3-1, ending a 32-year championship drought. It was supposed to be a happy moment but, as with all things 2020, things went south quickly. Turner reappeared on the field to celebrate the Dodgers’ World Series victory with his teammates. He was seen touching the p̶i̶e̶c̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶m̶e̶t̶a̶l̶ trophy, hugging his teammates, kissing his wife, and posing for photos without a mask. Turner didn’t spend the whole time maskless, but he put a significant number of people at risk. What made things worse was, in the aftermath, Turner’s teammates supported his returning to the field. The Dodgers were held back in Arlington, Texas to undergo testing before being allowed to travel back home.
Turner, MLB, and the Dodgers received a significant amount of criticism in the wake of the on-field celebration. Turner could have knowingly infected his teammates and anyone else on the field after the game such as photographers, TV camera operators, other media personnel, and league personnel. Furthermore, manager Dave Roberts is a cancer survivor, which means his immune system puts him at increased risk due to COVID-19. Beyond that, anyone any of those people come into contact with later – clubhouse employees, Uber drivers, hotel staff, etc. – is also at risk.
Consider this: In August, a Maine wedding reception included only 62 people. However, the wedding was linked to at least 170 COVID-19 cases. Eight of those 170 people died. None of the eight were at the wedding. Describing one instance of the virus spreading, Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said, “A guest who attended the wedding infected their parent. The parent then had contact with another one of their children. That child works at Maplecrest and infected five people there. All of this unfolded in 2 ½ weeks.”
It will be interesting to see how MLB and the MLBPA decide to handle the Turner situation. It’s literally unprecedented. But MLB also does not have the greatest track record when it comes to taking COVID-19 seriously and enforcing protocols. The league saw two outbreaks during the regular season with the Marlins and Cardinals. Over 40 games in total were postponed. During both the regular season and the playoffs, players and coaches were frequently caught on camera flouting the “masks on at all times” rule, but MLB did nothing about it. Players who broke protocols during the season – some members of the Marlins and Cardinals reportedly went to strip clubs and casinos; the Indians’ Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac went out socializing in Chicago – went unpunished by the league. And don’t forget, in a blatant cash grab, MLB allowed 10,000 fans to attend each NLCS and World Series game in what was otherwise being described as a “bubble.” MLB didn’t even enforce social distancing and mask-wearing with fans.
Additionally, Turner was allowed by MLB to play during Game 6 despite his test results coming back inconclusive. MLB treated that as a negative rather than a positive test result, which is the exact opposite of how the league should go about it. Before Turner chose to put people at risk, MLB chose to potentially put others at risk by allowing him to show up at the ballpark in the first place.
Due to all of that, it will come across as hypocritical if Turner and only Turner is punished for his transgression. He would only be punished because it happened in a highly visible moment and was widely reported upon; otherwise, players like Clevinger and Plesac would have suffered similar fates from the league. The league’s nonchalance to COVID risk, even in Turner’s particular case before the seventh inning, will also come across as hypocritical.
However, both MLB and the MLBPA have to worry about their image, so punishing an outlier like Turner likely benefits both groups. By punishing Turner, whatever that might look like, MLB appears to be taking COVID-19 seriously. And by agreeing that Turner should be punished, the union doesn’t look like it’s prioritizing players’ money over everyone else’s health and safety, a P.R. issue that could explode in its face.
That being said, the union has to tread carefully. The official rules don’t mention Turner’s situation specifically. By granting Manfred power to punish Turner in this case, it creates a precedent for the commissioner to do so going forward as well. While the commissioner generally has a responsibility to act as a steward of the game, he is simply an employee of MLB ownership. The commissioner and ownership are, by design, in conflict with the union. Thus, giving the commissioner power – even in a case where a lot of people on both sides agree – potentially makes the union weaker.
If Turner does end up receiving a punishment, expect it to be strong enough that the league can say it did something about the matter, but weak enough that the union can say it did not grant Manfred undue power to set a precedent. Turner could also simply be tasked with issuing a public apology and donating to a COVID-19-related cause. Ultimately, no one is truly going to be happy with the outcome, whatever it may be.