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Coronavirus has hazards particular to the sports world

Because athletes travel, share locker rooms, and play before crowds, their risk of exposure increases.

A fan at a Sounders-Fire MLS game used a hand-sanitizing station at CenturyLink Field in Seattle this week.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

With the number of coronavirus cases in North America expected to climb, perhaps steeply, professional and amateur sports are already weighing the pros and cons of whether games and tournaments should continue as scheduled, or whether to shut down arenas and stadiums and have teams play in front empty seats.

Such “social distancing” is already being instituted in some places across Europe, Asia, and Africa for sporting events, concerts, and other public gatherings, and it’s part of the debate over whether the Tokyo Summer Olympics should take place as scheduled.

To be clear, “social distancing” is not a cure for the coronavirus.


But, in theory, it should put a brake on its spread.

“Maybe this won’t reduce the overall number of cases, but the hope is it will spread them out over a longer period of time," said Dr. Yonatan Grad, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health, in an email, "both limiting the extent to which health care facilities are overwhelmed and giving more time for development of better tools to prevent and treat infections.

“As a general principle, limiting collections of people could reduce the spread of disease and is an important intervention to consider — do you really want to be in a sports arena or stadium with a pandemic going on? Or at an event that brings in people from all over the world? — but I don’t think there is consensus on the size of the crowd, when to start social distancing or for how long.”

Even if the empty-stadium theory holds true, the travel/locker room set-up that exists in professional sports places athletes in a high-risk environment, said Grad.

“Their close and constant proximity sets them up for transmission,” he said. “For example, over the past couple of years, there have been outbreaks of mumps in NHL teams and in rugby teams. Given the risk to athletes, it seems worthwhile for sports leagues — amateur and professional — to think about safety both for the players and the fans.”


The National College Players Association, a nonprofit that advocates for college athletes, implored the NCAA last week to take precautions immediately and then think long and hard before allowing the March Madness tournament to conduct business as usual.

“Precautions should include cancelling all auxiliary events that put players in contact with crowds such as meet and greets and press events,” read the statement. “Athletic programs should also take every possible measure to sanitize buses and airplanes used to transport players.

“In regard to the NCAA’s March Madness tournament and other athletic events, there should be a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present — the NCAA and its colleges must act now, there is no time to waste.”

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this weekend, the 3,000-plus attendees will receive written instructions to not shake hands (elbow bumps are OK). In addition, all food served to attendees will be individually wrapped.

Minor action

US House Resolution 6020, the one that outlines opposition to Major League Baseball’s plan to strip affiliation from 42 minor league clubs, passed out of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The legislation, according to a press release from the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force, commissioned a Government Accountability Office report "to evaluate the social, economic, and historic contributions that Minor League Baseball has made to American life and culture.” … If you didn’t know there was a professional ultimate league, you will be surprised to learn that Boston has its own team in the American Ultimate Disc League. The Boston Glory will throw off their inaugural season April 19 at their home field, Hormel Stadium in Medford … The Wall Street Journal reports that women’s basketball is rapidly gaining, and sometimes surpassing, men’s basketball on college campuses around the country. Thanks greatly to the rise to superstar status of Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon women have gone from 19 percent of basketball attendance three years ago to 58 percent. At Oregon State, it’s a rise from 48 percent to 60 percent, and California from 19 to 31. The South Carolina women draw just over 50 percent of the basketball attendance, with Mississippi State at 54 percent.


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com.