It’s looking like a miracle if U.S. sports doesn’t shut down for a while, and maybe it really should

I feel a little weird that this is turning into the daily Field of Microbes report, but that’s probably where everything is headed anyway within the next couple of weeks (if not sooner), so may as well learn to live with it.

In any event, things have changed so much in the last 48 hours that Monday’s prediction that we could see lots of sports played behind closed doors is starting to sound impossibly quaint. Among the latest developments:

Now, all this could be taken as a sign more of the spread of coronavirus fear than of the actual virus, and there’s some truth to that. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that if anything, fear is just catching up to the reality: The number of actual infections is almost certainly many, many times the number of confirmed cases, especially in nations like the U.S. where testing has been sporadic at best and impossible to access at worst. And with social distancing measures that slow the spread of the disease the best proven bulwark against an overwhelmed medical system that would cause deaths to skyrocket — closing schools, theaters, and other public places saved St. Louis during the 1918 flu epidemic! — we’re moving very quickly from “maybe some games should be played behind closed doors” to “maybe we need to rethink all major public events until we’ve flattened the curve.”

For those struggling to keep up with the morass of media coverage on this issue — which has been great in places but also terrible in others because the media is currently understaffed, underexperienced, and more prone than ever to making reporting decisions based on clicks and whatever the rich guy who owns the one remaining local news outlet wants — I wrote an article yesterday for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting on how to read the coronavirus news without scaring yourself too much (or too little). In the 24 hours since, some of it has already begun to seem out of date, but hopefully the rest will still be useful for the next couple of days, which is starting to feel like as far as we can look into the future with any certainty. Stay safe out there, and stay away from crowds as much as possible.

15 comments on “It’s looking like a miracle if U.S. sports doesn’t shut down for a while, and maybe it really should

  1. So one league is cancelling its tourney. 2 more playing without fans and the rest with fans. Doesn’t this mean at some point that players who play in front of fans have a higher risk of infecting other players who didn’t play in front of fans? Not to fear monger but why should college athletes be subject to this? Oh wait. $$$$$$.

  2. I guess the question is, how long a shutdown is really needed?
    Italy is doing a month, but nothing magical about that time frame.

    Playing games without fans seems reasonable, and people stuck at home have something to do- NHL, NBA could delay and just run their seasons later- MLB really cant do that, nor can March Madness- and the NCAA tournament would seem to bring more people from different parts of the country together that could increase spread, it would seem.

    • Italy is doing a month, but it is a massive state-sponsored effort to contain, and hopefully eradicate, the virus that goes well beyond sports. A sports league or university shutting down without a macro-level response will probably not be as effective.

      • President I-don’t-plan-just-react-to-stuff-that-happens-each-day doesn’t exactly seem equipped to spearhead a macro level response.

        • That depends…. he seems capable of making macro level responses to beauty pageant contestants. Not good responses, not even ethical or legal responses. But responses all the same.

  3. I remember when MLB had Camden Yards empty for an Orioles/White Sox Game due to a controversial legal decision. It may happen again. Why? Legal issues. There is little doubt that Class Action Lawsuits will happen if games are played and people who attended them (especially participants) end up getting sick. One other issue is image. The NFL took a beating when they played after JFK got assassinated, no sports league wants to spend years being hammered about playing games during a national crisis.

    • Exactly right David. I don’t wish to sound crass (though I almost certainly will), but this is as much about the liability of organizers and franchise owners should employees or paying fans become ill as it is anything else.

      As noted elsewhere, while it is certainly possible that transmission could occur at large sporting events (densely packed crowds, lots of food and drink, close personal contact etc), it is probably more likely that the same number of fans grouping together in homes, bars or other small gathering areas would face a greater risk of infection than the whole would in one (particularly outdoor) stadium. A modern arena has greater air exchange requirements than a 40yr old commercial unit does.

      None of this makes it “ok” to continue sports as normal in the current situation, but league shutdowns or ‘closed door’ orders aren’t likely to stop this virus’ spread or even significantly reduce it.

  4. I heard a few hot takes (well, I have a sibling who communicated some) yesterday about cancelling events. I think Neil did a real good job (he has been doing a lot of research) framing the issues in the last two paragraphs. It is clear that places that are reporting a lot of cases with significantly lower death rates (e.g. Switzerland) are doing a better job of testing. Places where testing has been inadequate or late (e.g. Italy) the death rate appears higher but true impact is not yet knowable. In the US we have not been ready to test adequately (I have learned that many people self-quarantining and being asked to be quarantined are not getting tested). Anyway, Neil’s points about making efforts to flatten the curve make the most sense right now. Even if we are “overreacting” (this is not generally a very articulate position), the evidence for that will become clearer over time so appropriate measures can be implemented. So in that sense most places have under reacted so far.

  5. “… In the 24 hours since, some of it has already begun to seem out of date…”

    Well said. This is precisely the problem right now… that very few people (if any) can know the full extent of the danger. Few professionals in the field can say with any accuracy what the actual number of infected patients or total deaths from Covid-19 are.

    It’s too soon. So precautions must be taken. We may look back on them and say they were ridiculous and unnecessary after the fact… but although costly, that would be a good thing if it were to happen (because the outbreak would have eventually been proven to be less dangerous than thought).

    Even the current rate of infections have to be taken with a grain of salt. We can only count the people who have been tested and those who have died. We know that the numbers aren’t being overreported (barring false positive infection tests, which do happen). We have no idea to what degree the infection or death rates may be underreported.

  6. As a freedom loving American, who is willing to accept the risks and trade offs of intermingling with other free Americans, instead of canceling events or banning spectators, let’s leave it up to each individual to decide for him or herself whether to attend any public event. No one is forcing anyone to show up anywhere, and I’m sure the leagues will offer a generous refund policy during this “crisis”. Most of us know the Earth’s biosphere is full of germs and we don’t want to live our lives as recluses.
    So it grates that the authorities want to force their hypochondria on us. I, however, choose freedom.

    • Unfortunately, in a public health crisis that depends on group action to stop the spread of a disease, an individual’s decision affects far more than their own health. I’d rather not die because some of my neighbors decide to play Russian roulette with their lungs.

  7. Not to turn this into a coronavirus ticker, but since this post:
    NBA season is on hold after a player tested positive for the virus
    NCAA tournament will be played with no fans
    I think all of the conference tournaments that are being played (only the Ivy has been cancelled I think?) have announced no fans starting tomorrow

    I think it’s only a matter of time before an NCAA player tests positive and the tournament is cancelled.

    • If one player having the virus is the criterion for shutting down, I imagine all U.S. pro sports will likely be on hold by the end of the weekend.