Sports have long been the envy of every industry looking to grab our attention and demand our eyeballs, its inherent drama and underlying passion providing the best reality show we could ask for. In times of trouble, sports have been there to unite us, in person or in spirit, a collective energy that can sustain us when we need it most.
The post-9/11 return to fields and stadiums was cathartic for an entire nation, just as Red Sox baseball in the wake of the Marathon Bombing reminded us that Boston is, indeed, Strong. As diversion or as main event, as folly or as serious business, sports give us the framework to express emotions that often have nowhere else to go. It’s why we love them so much.
But today we need sports to do something different, not to unite us, but to keep us apart.
There is so much still unknown about the dangerous COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus and how much or how quickly it will continue to spread. But we do know the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic on Wednesday, just one of the many headlines that spun our news cycle with unprecedented speed and content.
In the sports corner of the world, it was the late-night announcement by the NBA that is was suspending the season in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s positive test for coronavirus that drew the loudest gasps, an unprecedented but necessary step to a virus whose containment appears rooted in social distancing. But as stunning as that was, and is, it’s impossible to imagine the NBA as an athletic outlier, that no other sports leagues will be moved to make the same decision.
What domino will fall next? Will the NHL continue to play? A league statement Wednesday night acknowledged the NBA decision but did not match it. Will the NFL hold the draft, an event that drew 600,000 across three days to Nashville a year ago, in crowded Las Vegas? Will baseball continue to hold spring training games under the hot Florida or Arizona sun? Will the Final Four still go on?
What happens now? What happens next?
The sporting landscape has never felt so uncertain. From canceling entire tournaments, which the Ivy League did for its men’s and women’s basketball teams on Tuesday, to suspending entire spring seasons, which the NESCAC Conference did for all member schools on Wednesday, the varied and various reactions to the virus fueled debates and fomented disagreements.
“You’re overreacting! It’s no worse than the flu!”
“Don’t be an idiot — no risk is worth it! Keep the fans out!”
“Games with no fans? That’s outrageous!”
“Cramped stands filled with people who are sweating, coughing, sneezing and high-fiving each other? That’s too dangerous!”
“Wait, you mean cancel the games altogether? What will I watch?”
“Don’t think about yourself — this is bigger than that.”
I won’t pretend to know the right answer to any of this, other than to land on the adage of erring on the side of caution, which in this case, means landing on the side of public health. A reaction that began with the sensible moves by many leagues and teams to limit attendance at games to essential team personnel and family members can, and should, go further.
As basketball conferences across the country play through brackets for the right to participate in the best March event of them all, the NCAA Tournament, it’s finally time to consider the unthinkable: that the men’s and women’s tournaments will be canceled. It’s tough to stomach the NCAA asking unpaid college players to do what paid professionals have already decided was too unsafe, and have them traveling hither and yon to first and second round games, criss-crossing the map for the rest of the month.
I understand the devastation and disappointment such a decision would bring. Hell, I’m a Rutgers grad, and with the Scarlet Knights on the verge of breaking the longest NCAA drought of any major college program, a 20-win season and seventh-place Big Ten finish all but assuring them of their first berth since 1991, I've been so looking forward to the Selection Sunday moment their names would be called.
But now I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth the potential price. Basketball games are intense, high-contact affairs, with the potential for sweat, tears, blood and saliva to be exchanged throughout a game. Like Gobert, whose symptoms were reported by the Utah Jazz as mild enough he felt he could have played before Wednesday night’s game at Oklahoma City was postponed, perhaps the players would remain relatively healthy even with the virus. But it’s the ensuing contact with others that has proven problematic.
As difficult as this is to accept, it feels as if sports should take a collective time out. Pause for a moment, put everything on hold until we know enough to ensure the most number of people are at the least possible risk. As difficult as the economic ramifications would be — venue workers who live paycheck to paycheck, small-market teams that rely on ticket revenue, struggling leagues in danger of folding — the human health concerns outweigh them.
Usually, when we need a dose of distraction, sports has provided the outlet. Only days ago, the uncharted waters we wondered about was where free-agent-to-be Tom Brady would land. That news doesn’t feel so big anymore, not as the health of athletes and fans has moved center stage.
But sports can still the lead the way, in keeping us apart as a means to keeping us safe.