By Arthur L. Caplan & Lee H. Igel
Golden State Warriors basketball star Steph Curry was recently sidelined with symptoms of new coronavirus. Fortunately, it was a false alarm. Curry turns out to have come down with a case of the flu, the symptoms of which are easily confused with those of the coronavirus. Still, the scare raises a question: What should the outbreak of COVID-19 infections and deaths mean for those playing sports or attending sporting events?
Many major events, ranging from the Olympic-sized to local pick-up games, are being reorganized to take place without fans, postponed, or canceled. Some are wondering if the gym, locker room, or stands are the place to be right now. Is such an abundance of caution warranted?
In some parts of the world with heavy outbreaks, the answer is “Yes.”
In Italy’s Serie A, soccer matches have already been played without fans in stadiums and there are calls for the league to suspend its current season. In Asia, the Tokyo Marathon—a primer for the event to be run at the 2020 Olympic Games—was run by 300 elite athletes instead of its usual 35,000-plus participants and watched by only handfuls of supporters along the route. Events in almost every sport imaginable (and even ones you didn’t know existed) have been called off in China, South Korea, and other parts of the region. Even esports is changing its game plan: the three Asia-based teams in the Overwatch League have reportedly traveled to North America to play matches that were originally scheduled to be played in their home cities.
Major sports leagues in locales that are seeing signs of COVID-19 cases beginning to add up are also making plans. The top-tier English Premier League, in which matchday revenues can reach up to $5-million for the home club, is working with government officials and broadcasting executives to determine how things could play out if fans are barred from accessing stadiums. In the United States, decision-makers at the NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, and NCAA are considering when it might be time to play games without any fans in attendance.
All of the above examples speak to the larger events being either postponed, relocated, or canceled. They say almost nothing of the local youth sport and amateur sports events slated to be held everywhere from neighborhood parks to “tournacation” megacomplexes. At all levels of sport, millions of people’s livelihoods and billions of people’s lifestyles are being affected.
Sport is a key area of attention in many people’s minds on most days. This is especially true in times of crisis, when we look to what is happening in sport to help us make sense of what is happening in economics, politics, society, and public health. It is no less the case when it comes to noticing news about rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, states of emergency, quarantines, social distancing, and “social mitigations” that are leading to closures of office buildings, schools, malls, houses of worship and other places in which large crowds gather in confined spaces.
It is possible that people who would otherwise attend a sports event might choose to stay home in an effort to avoid catching the virus. But let’s be realistic about this line of thinking. For one thing, there is going to be a healthy dose of optimism bias to go around.
That quirk of human behavior, as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, is a tendency for individuals to be overly confident and overly optimistic about their prospects for taking-on risks. In other words, it’s a “It won’t happen to me” syndrome.
Consider that in the context of COVID-19, with its incubation period of up-to two weeks and the reality that there are people who are infected but don’t yet experience the full effect of symptoms. Now, consider that in the context of an opportunity to see a beloved athlete or team play, whether in-person at the venue or via television at a pub. And, oddly, it may be less expensive and more accessible to attend an event if the usual fans stay away or some superstars decide to sit out for a few weeks.
The fans are likely to keep coming. But will the athletes stay home if sick? Look at the recent example of University of Oregon star basketball player Sabrina Ionescu being heralded for speaking at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service and later in the day earning a triple-double en route to her team winning the Pac-12 championship while battling the flu.
Ionescu played sick. This, for many people, recalled the career performance that Michael Jordan delivered in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals after showing up at the arena dehydrated and suffering from flu-like symptoms. According to public health guidelines, both should have been holed up at home. But, “everybody knows,” that’s not what champions do; they push through the perceived adversity. Yet that is exactly the wrong lesson when applied to viruses seeking to sicken and kill us. If you have a fever, you don’t go to the medical tent—you go home with a mask on.
Once COVID-19 emerges at the human level, it can spread easily from one infected person to others. That can happen, for example, by way of a cough or a sneeze, close personal contact such as a handshake, spitting, or touching an object or surface that has virus particles on it, and then failing to wash hands before touching one’s mouth, nose, or eyes.
What, then, does all of this mean for how sports events should be managed right now in the USA with COVID-19 swirling around?
First, big-time athletes, coaches, staff and mascots need to get a flu shot if they haven’t received one already. This won’t stop new coronavirus infections. But it will help result in reduced incidence of flu cases that stress hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units, which is a duty we all have when there may be a big demand for both services due to coronavirus.
Second, don’t practice or play while sick. Stay home. Do not risk infecting others. Take a cue from Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, who is battling a bout of the seasonal flu and will be sitting out his team’s upcoming NBA game. This also means cutting back on trips out-of-town—whether to see your favorite big league team play a game or take-in another of junior’s little league “tourna-cation” weekends—and especially to hot zones that are harboring lots of cases.
Third, make hand washing and hand sanitizer stations available and accessible to anyone who is healthy enough to be at the game. At the same time, use the sports event to educate the public on proper health measures. Play 20-second-long jingles in bathrooms and on overhead scoreboards to remind people how long it takes to thoroughly wash hands. And make sure there are messages telling everyone to stop spitting all over the field and dugouts. For that matter, make sure that no one is sharing water bottles, towels, or oxygen masks.
There are also other typical person-to-person activities that need to be reconsidered in ways that use technology to avoid risky contact. For example, ticket windows and concessionaires need to shift to credit card- and contactless pay-only instead of paper money. Team and athlete visits to children’s hospitals and nursing homes, where patients tend to have especially compromised immune systems, need to go virtual for the time being.
Sports decision-makers have plenty to consider about going forward with games. It is not an easy decision to begin with and the pressure from all corners—players and fans, sponsors and broadcasters, government officials, residents and visitors—doesn’t make it any easier.
Plus, what happens when, at a game played behind closed doors, someone shows up with a fever? Does everyone get sent home? Do they quarantine everyone who was there? Should athletes and teams be sequestered to keep things going? Should we agree that if you are not ready to sequester, you can’t play?
Above all, sports decision-makers need to loudly affirm that protecting lives takes priority over entertainment and human achievement. Eventually, we will find a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19. Until then, however, public health needs to be sent in off the bench to take a starring role.