In disaster movies, you always know a city is done for when the sports stadiums go down. Whether it’s San Francisco’s Oracle Park in San Andreas, the old Giants Stadium in The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Fenway Park in one of those Godzilla sequels, sports arenas are the closest things we have to mass cathedrals, places where tens of thousands of people gather to worship, places that feel indestructible and impenetrable (as long as alien monsters aren’t attacking them). There are no other structures in American life that comfortably cram in 100,000 total strangers on one large city block for three hours; on a Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 107,601 people sit together at Michigan Stadium, making it instantly one of the 300 largest cities in the country. Sports can bring us together metaphorically, but more than any other American institution, they do so physically — they do so literally.
Which brings us to the coronavirus. We are, of course, in the midst of a panic; at the beginning of one, really. Many of our American institutions have acted swiftly in response, or at least more swiftly than the executive branch of our government. Top universities are telling their students not to return from spring break, public parades are being postponed, large festivals like South by Southwest are being canceled entirely. We’ve been slower than the rest of the world, but there is an overarching understanding that the virus is about to change our lives entirely, in ways that can’t be anticipated and predicted in any possible way. Something big is coming.
But in the world of American sports, it’s undeniable how little fear, or even preparation, there has really been. We have seen considerable international reaction to the coronavirus, from the European leagues playing games in front of empty stadiums to Japanese baseball pushing back its season to the possibility that the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo may have to be canceled entirely.
American sports, however, have dragged their feet. Major League Baseball continues to hold 15 or more spring-training games a day in Florida and Arizona, two of the states with confirmed cases of the virus. The league has asked anyone who has “visited a high-risk area … not to visit our facilities” (commissioner Rob Manfred says he’ll be talking to team owners about it this week), and as of Monday night, it is reportedly at least thinking about playing its games in alternate locations. The NHL and NBA haven’t canceled any games or even tossed out the notion of playing games in front of no fans, despite some NBA executives’ concerns and some players curbing their autograph habits; LeBron James, still the game’s preeminent superstar, has said if the league tries to have games in front of empty arenas, he won’t play. The NFL is keeping next month’s NFL Draft on while “maintaining contact” with the WHO and CDC, the NHL has used the virus as an excuse to kick reporters out of locker rooms (as has the NBA, MLS, and Major League Baseball, in a joint press release that seemed to miss the point of the coronavirus panic entirely), the PGA is “allowing” fans to bring hand sanitizer into their events and the NCAA, in addition to its basketball tournament, is keeping its wrestling national championships on this weekend, hosted by Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, the MIT Sloan Conference this past week, featuring supposedly sports’ most analytical and scientifically based minds, didn’t feature a single mention of the virus. Some sports have even defied local municipalities’ explicit demands. The city of San Francisco has recommended the cancellation of “large gatherings,” but the Golden State Warriors, in its shiny new Chase Center, played Friday and is expected to lace up against the Clippers on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
This is a particularly pivotal time because we are coming up on the busiest few months of the sports calendar. Major League Baseball’s Opening Day arrives in two weeks. The MLS season has just started, and the WNBA’s is about to. The NBA and NHL playoffs, college football Spring Days, the NFL Draft, the Masters — they’re all on deck. And then there’s the NCAA Tournament, perhaps the second-biggest sporting event in the country (collectively, anyway, unless your office does an NBA-playoffs bracket pool), which kicks off in exactly a week and still seems to have no plans to adjust to the virus whatsoever. The NCAA has said flat out that it will not be canceling any tournament games, and sources say it’s “hard to imagine” playing in arenas with no fans. Indian Wells, an important tennis tournament in California, has been called off, but the decision was made by that specific event’s organizers, rather than by some overarching legislative body. The leagues themselves? They’re holding off for now.
Why are sports so hesitant? Part of the answer is, of course, money. Take what has happened to Austin with South by Southwest — which some local merchants in danger of going out of business with the loss of this year’s festival — and multiply it exponentially, particularly with the NCAA basketball tournament, whose hosts have been planning for the arrival of tens of thousands of tourists for several years now. (Atlanta, the site of this year’s Final Four, was awarded its bid way back in 2014.)
But there is something cultural going on, something inherent to the world of sports. That same instinct that has seen our president wave away the virus as a normal flu that we’re all overreacting to? You’ve seen that all around sports, from media members to casual fans to your usual dolts. The mindset can be summed up well, actually, by President Trump’s golfing partners as the virus raged this weekend: several players from the defending champion Washington Nationals, who have spring training just a few miles away from Mar-a-Lago. There is a certain play-through-it attitude on display, particularly pronounced given that the coronavirus tends to afflict the old, infirm, and disadvantaged. Those who work in sports, and definitely those who play them, tend to be none of those things. Rather than see the coronavirus as a public-health issue, it’s one that exists outside: one more distraction from beyond the bubble. (There is even potentially a connection to be made to the NFL’s failure to confront its concussion crisis for decades, and even still today; sports are obsessed with toughness, and injuries and illness are things that happen to others — to the weak.) The people in control will act only when they absolutely have to.
It would seem that a breaking point will arrive when one of these leagues blinks, cries uncle, and makes a sweeping change to current policy. If this virus plays out the way it’s looking like it might, that could set into motion a chain reaction of cancellations. But right now, every financial incentive and every cultural bias are telling the leagues to wait as long as humanly possible to make a move. By then, it may be too late.