Column: Fear of unknown looms in sports as virus spreads

Biathlon World Cup
Biathlon World Cup
Posted at 10:20 AM, Mar 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-06 10:20:50-05

So far, at least, spring training ballparks are drawing good crowds and NBA and NHL arenas are mostly full. There’s little sign of coronavirus panic among U.S. sports fans, even if the team store doesn’t carry masks with their favorite player’s name and number on them.

That may change. And soon.

Two colleges this week canceled trips to the Seattle area for basketball games after an outbreak of the new coronavirus in Washington state, the first major U.S. sports disruptions because of the virus. Chicago State officials said in a statement that the decision not to make the trip to an area under a state of emergency was done with the “health and well-being of the campus community in mind.”

It might be undue caution, but the schools decided the risk of contracting the virus was greater than reward of possibly winning a game. That mean’s there will be no senior day this year at Seattle University, where players were supposed to be honored before Saturday’s game against Missouri-Kansas City.

These are dangerous and unpredictable times. There’s a virus spreading that can kill, and it seems no large gathering is completely safe.

In Denmark on Thursday, a former professional soccer player who represented the country at the 2010 World Cup tested positive for the virus. Thirteen people who attended a soccer game in Amsterdam along with Thomas Kahlenberg were put in home quarantine, while three players from the Lyngby club who had been in contact with Kahlenberg were also quarantined.

And in Las Vegas, where five conference basketball tournaments will be played over the next week, officials on Thursday announced the first presumptive case of the virus.

Nobody knows just how much the coronavirus will spread. Nobody knows how much it will disrupt American sports or American society.

Recent events in affected areas around the world, though, suggest it won’t be good. An ominous pattern is developing that threatens sports — at least temporarily — as we know them now.

In Italy, all sports events will take place without fans for at least the next month as officials scramble to contain the virus from spreading. Sports competitions and pre-Olympic events have been canceled in Japan, even as organizers vow the Summer Olympics will go on as planned in July. In England, pre-game handshakes between Premier League players have been banned, and there are suggestions some future matches may end up being played without fans.

Even players in the Italy-South Korea Davis Cup qualifier this weekend will have to adjust. They will handle their own towels, so the ball kids don’t have to touch their sweat.

Suddenly, the hypothetical doesn’t seem so hypothetical anymore. Sports draw crowds, and crowds are the enemy of efforts to contain the virus.

Could we see empty stadiums as the major league season begins? It seems implausible at first blush, but the Seattle Mariners open at home in three weeks and right now all bets are off.

How about March Madness, where thousands gather in arenas across the country? Does anyone trust the NCAA with coming up with a plan to protect both athletes and fans as play begins in less than two weeks and so little is still known about where the virus has spread?

Let’s go a little further down the road on a crowded spring sports schedule. Can you imagine a Kentucky Derby run without spectators? A Masters played with just players on the course?

Again, no one really knows. Already, though, those with underlying medical conditions are being advised to stay away from crowds, and people 65 and older are at tremendous risk, too,

And, really, how much fun will it be to be at a basketball game while listening with increasing dread to sniffles from fans in the row behind? An unexpected sneeze could empty a row, or even a section.

Players themselves are also at risk. Already NBA players are avoiding high-fives and autograph seekers, acting on league guidance, and MLB is telling players not to accept balls and pens from fans when signing autographs.

And how about the possibility of players catching the virus from teammates? In Florida on Thursday, Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish was scratched from a scheduled start because of illness and tweeted that he was worried about being in the clubhouse because he had a cough.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland IOC President Thomas Bach insisted the Olympics will begin as scheduled in Tokyo in July. The words “postponement” and “cancellation”’ weren’t even brought up in two days of IOC meetings, Bach said.

Bach, of course, is protecting both the golden goose and the Olympic brand. But the bottom line is he can’t forecast how this will all end up any more than baseball commissioner Rob Manfred can.

A number of Olympic qualifiers have already been postponed and are in limbo. And while next week’s lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece is still on, it’s hard to imagine a torch relay following as planned across Japan beginning March 26 if the virus is still spreading there.

Right now, the biggest inconvenience for U.S. sports fans is having to carry hand sanitizer and wait in longer lines at the washroom sinks.

But events are proving to be as fast moving as the virus. That could change and change quick.

Nobody really knows.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.