These days, the attendant stresses of being a sports fan — winning, losing, team-building, player development — don’t seem quite so paramount.
A little petty, in fact.
Every so often as a fan, some real-life event occurs, usually an unexpected death, that cuts into the fun and games and forces everyone to — this is the inevitable term — “put things in perspective.”
But after the proper amount of sober reflection, it doesn’t take long for things to return, more or less, to normal.
As we face a unique and tragic health-care crisis with the proliferation of the coronavirus — nationally centered right here in our midst in the Seattle area — the ramifications for sports are just one piece in a giant, complicated puzzle.
But I can’t remember an event in my lifetime with the potential to have a greater impact on the world of athletics. And “world” is a key word, because this virus is shutting down events in every corner of the globe, while forcing agonizing decisions on every league, school and event organizer.
The quadrennial showcase gathering of elite athletes, the Summer Olympics, scheduled to start July 24 in Tokyo, is in grave danger, despite the assurances of International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adam this past week, who declared: “We made a decision, and the decision is the games go ahead.”
A more realistic viewpoint was expressed a few days earlier by IOC member Dick Pound, who said the Olympics could be canceled if, within a two- or three-month window before the Games, the disease proved too dangerous to proceed.
“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’ ” Pound told The Associated Press.
The Olympics present this dilemma writ large. Closer to home, the same question is being asked with increasing frequency. The answers are getting thornier by the day — and the potential ramifications more serious. And fans, too, now have to make a risk assessment just to go to the ballpark or arena. When the simple act of attending a game can be viewed as an existential threat, we are indeed in a brave new world.
In a Washington Post article about the dilemma facing the NCAA over the rapidly approaching staging of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, contested in arenas around the country and bringing in teams from every geographic region, a member of their advisory team, Carlos del Rio, put it perfectly: “We’re kind of building the ship as we’re sailing it.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules about holding sporting events during a potential pandemic. As Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission, said, “You have to listen to the experts and determine what’s best.”
There is little precedent, either, unless you want to go back 100 years to the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. The 1919 Stanley Cup Final, in which the Seattle Metropolitans were trying to duplicate their 1917 title, was canceled after five games because of an outbreak of the Spanish flu in Seattle. It’s the only time in history the Stanley Cup wasn’t completed once begun.
The one governing rule, of course, should be that public health is the foremost consideration. But determining the extent of that risk is no simple thing. In the same Washington Post article, del Rio summarized the knottiness of the NCAA dilemma by quoting Jeffrey P. Koplan, former director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention:
“We’re going to know tomorrow things we wish we knew today.”
The Sounders were the first local team to face that decision for a major event, and — as of early Saturday afternoon — were going forward with their match against Columbus on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field. This is despite the revelation that a concessions vendor who worked an XFL game at CenturyLink on Feb. 22 had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
In a statement, the Sounders said “the club is following the regional health authority’s determination that risk to stadium attendees from that employee was low and that no additional precautions are necessary heading into Saturday’s match.”
The Sounders added that they are “in continuous dialogue with regional health authorities and Major League Soccer, in addition to our network of medical experts” as well as putting into place expanded sanitation procedures.
Yet every fan must decide for themselves whether it’s worth the risk of sharing close quarters with thousands of strangers for the purpose of rooting on their team in person. I spoke on Friday to Kristen White of Renton, a Sounders diehard and season-ticket holder who has attended every home match since 2012. She didn’t plan to end that streak Saturday night.
“I’m pretty much full speed ahead,” she said. “I was talking with some co-workers. We’d be more concerned if it was a closed venue. Because it’s open air, I’m not hugely concerned.”
White, a teacher, says she is hygiene-conscious and always carries hand sanitizer to games, but she will be more wary of touching surfaces. When we spoke, she was leaving open the possibility the game might be canceled at the last minute.
“Be flexible is the code I’m abiding by,” she said, adding that if the decision was made to play the match in an empty stadium, “I’d probably meet up with friends outside and yell.”
But not every fan is as eager as White. Some on social media have been questioning the Sounders’ decision — one soon to be faced by the Mariners, who open the season with a seven-game homestand beginning March 26 at T-Mobile Park.
While the Mariners say they intend to play the games in Seattle, The Times’ Ryan Divish reported that contingencies have been discussed if the situation worsens. That includes playing the games in Arizona, or moving the games to the home fields of their opponents, the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins.
Meanwhile, the NBA sent out a memo to its teams Friday asking them to begin preparing for the possibility of playing games with no fans — or media — in attendance. LeBron James promptly told reporters after the Lakers’ victory over Milwaukee, “Nah, that’s impossible. I ain’t playing. If I ain’t got the fans in the crowd, that’s what I play for. … If I show up to an arena, and there ain’t no fans there? I ain’t playing. So they could do what they want to do.”
David Carter, associate professor of sports business at USC, said in a phone interview that fans are watching carefully to see if teams and leagues are handling this crisis with compassion or greed.
“If Sports with a capital S is approaching this with an abundance of caution, even if they’re upset (with cancellations or disruption), fans will look back and say, ‘They really had our interests at heart,’ rather than, ‘Those SOBs wanted a few extra bucks,’ ” Carter said.
“Fans will be disappointed if they can’t show up as a spectator, but far more aggrieved if they feel they’ve been taken advantage of.”
This is one of those moments in time when perspectives are being re-calibrated at a dizzying rate.