For a few surreal hours Wednesday, the country’s major sports and sporting events did their best to bury their heads in the sand and carry on as usual. There were fans in the stands and cheerleaders on the sidelines as the ACC men's basketball tournament continued, and there was talk of the Golden State Warriors moving their games to a less-contagious locale.
The games would go on, the Big Ten insisted, its only concession to the health of the tens of thousands of people playing in, working at or attending its conference tournaments being to close locker rooms for interviews.
Fortunately, grown-ups stepped in to point out the lunacy of it all.
“We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, long one of the nation’s leading health experts, said during a Congressional hearing on efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it. But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds is something that would (cause) a risk to spread.”
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Shortly after, state and local officials in northern California, Washington and Ohio said their recommendations against mass gatherings were now orders. If NBA, NHL and NCAA tournament games are to be played in those areas, they will be played behind closed doors.
Within hours, the NCAA bowed to the inevitable.
“This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in announcing that fans won’t be allowed at its championships, including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments that start next week.
The NCAA announced Wednesday afternoon it would hold the men's and women's basketball tournaments without fans because of the coronavirus. (Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)
Before sports officials get too much credit for prioritizing the health and safety of the public, remember that none of them did this willingly. Their priority was always to keep the fans – you know, the paying customers – in the seats. Even if those seats were covered with germs and mere inches from someone coughing, sneezing and fresh off a cruise ship.
As evidence mounted of a rapidly spreading outbreak for which our government has no plan and our best scientists have few answers, college presidents canceled classes or moved them online while saying it was fine, just fine! to keep playing sports. The NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer kicked media out of clubhouses and locker rooms and claimed it was for containment.
There was always a disconnect between that edict and continuing to allow fans to sit courtside. But the great lie was revealed when MLB said one-on-one interviews were fine outside the clubhouse and the 6-foot distance between players and reporters was only necessary in group interviews.
Besides wanting to dodge the obvious financial implications, no doubt some leaders in sports didn’t believe coronavirus was an existential threat. Even as the disease ravaged first China and then Italy, and European officials called off games or ordered them played behind closed doors, that was happening an ocean away.
But the reckoning has arrived. The World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic Wednesday. There are more than 121,000 confirmed cases worldwide, and it has caused more than 4,300 deaths.
In the United States, there are now more than 1,000 cases and 31 deaths.
“Bottom line: It’s going to get worse,” Fauci said.
Sports are the great equalizer in American society, the one common bond most of us have. It doesn’t matter where we grew up, what we do or how much money we have. Our favorite teams and players give us a way to connect, be it celebrating their achievements or commiserating over their disappointments.
March Madness goes beyond that, appealing to folks who don’t know or care about anything in sports. To see it muted, at a time when there is so much uncertainty and fear, is unsettling.
But it’s that unknown that makes the steps taken Wednesday so necessary. There is no vaccine for coronavirus, and no treatments, either. We don’t even have enough of the testing kits to tell us who has the disease and who doesn’t.
Seeing sports go silent was what the NCAA and leagues had desperately hoped to avoid. Sometimes, though, the best decisions are the ones made for you.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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