Update: Wednesday night, the NBA announced that it has suspended operations indefinitely after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus.
The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, is traveling across the globe at light speed. From China to Italy to South Korea to the U.S., is no respecter of borders or boundaries. The global pandemic is spreading like wildfire. Fear of the coronavirus has affected the stock market and the economy. It has also led to the cancellation of everything from concerts to conferences to political rallies.
Sports fans should have known that it was only a matter of time before the effects of the new coronavirus would be felt in the sports world. According to a comprehensive list put together by USA Today, hundreds of athletic events around the world have been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19.
Until recently, those cancellations mainly occurred in sports such as marathons, badminton, cycling and rugby. As people continue to get ill, bigger sports teams, leagues and organizations are taking precautions to protect their players and fans.
Wednesday afternoon, the coronavirus ball bounced in the biggest way. The NCAA announced that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be held without fans in the arenas.
Wow! This is the same NCAA that for years has put profits over players (in the name of amateurism). However, the organization should be lauded for taking a safety-first approach to protect its student-athletes, coaches, families and fans.
"The NCAA continues to assess the impact of COVID-19 in consultation with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. "Based on their advice and my discussions with the NCAA Board of Governors, I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance.”
Fans can still tune into March Madness on TV. However, expect it to be an eerie experience to watch spectacular plays and buzzer beaters without a packed arena going crazy in the background. My guess is that we’ll get overwhelmed with close-up shots of players’ parents after amazing highlights. Maybe the NCAA can find a way to get Dick Vitale at every game. He is usually turnt enough that an additional crowd is not required.
All jokes aside, the decision shows that the NCAA is capable of doing the right thing. After all, the NCAA Tournament features 68 teams, 67 games, 14 cities, more than 1,000 players and nearly 700K attendees. It is essential that the organization think past the dollars and consider the public health risks.
The NCAA’s decision follows the postponement of a Premier League (England) soccer game between Arsenal FC and Manchester City. The Arsenal players decided to self-quarantine after coming in contact with another team’s owner who tested positive for COVID-19.
The match was the Premier League’s first cancellation over coronavirus concerns but it probably will not be the last. League officials have discussed playing in empty stadiums, postponements and other numerous other options to protect everyone against the pandemic.
That same conversation is happening in other U.S. sports leagues. With the NBA Playoffs, NCAA Tournament and MLB Opening Day just around the corner, leagues commissioners are finding themselves in a precarious predicament.
Should they proceed normally and potentially expose their players, fans and executives to COVID-19? Should they postpone games, not knowing when it will be “safe” to play, and potentially losing millions or billions? Or should the teams play in empty stadiums? The teams would lose millions in ticket costs but would still be able to earn revenue from televising the games.
The NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS announced an agreement to bar media from locker rooms for the foreseeable future. Instead of allowing reporters to hold personal interviews with reporters before and after games, players will answer questions from a podium in designated media rooms. Executives at the major sports leagues hope that will limit the possibility of exposure to their players.
Golden State Warriors fans became nervous when Steph Curry came down with flu-like symptoms shortly after his return from a broken hand. In order to prevent hysteria, the Warriors quickly released a statement to quell rumors about its star player’s illness.
“This morning Stephen Curry was diagnosed with influenza A by a positive viral testing,” the statement read. “…He has no specific risk factors for COVID-19. He has the seasonal flu. We have begun treatment for Stephen and instituted our team protocol for influenza exposure.”
When LeBron James was asked about the idea of playing basketball games in empty stadiums, he scoffed at the idea.
"We play games without the fans? Nah, that’s impossible,” James told reporters. “I ain’t playing! If I ain’t got the fans in the crowd, that’s who I play for. I play for my teammates. I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about.”
James later backtracked on the statement. He explained that he was unaware that league executives were actually considering playing in empty stadiums to lessen the public health risk. James stated that while he would be “disappointed” to play without fans, it was important to listen to the health experts in relation to COVID-19.
Though James was being asked hypothetical questions, it appears that the NBA has run out of time to decide what to do. According to NBC Sports, on Wednesday morning, Santa Clara County issued a ban on mass gathering over 1,000 people for the next two weeks. San Francisco is in Santa Clara County. The Golden State Warriors play in downtown San Francisco.
Santa Clara County’s decision forced the Warriors and the NBA to put a rush on their decision. The Warriors are scheduled to host the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night and will do so without fans present in the Chase Center. Whether future games are postponed, played in empty arenas, neutral venues or moved to the home of the away team remains to be seen.
Decisions for all major sports league are evolving hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute. One thing if for sure – you’re wrong if you thought you could escape the COVID-19 hysteria by tuning into your favorite sporting event. The coronavirus is going to impact sports just like it has the ability to find a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Follow Ishmael and In the Clutch online at stlamerican.com and on Twitter @ishcreates.