The coronavirus outbreak continues to be a concern across pro sports leagues, including the NBA, which has been taking precautions as the virus spreads. But on Friday night, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James brushed off the notion that the deadly virus might soon force games to take place in empty arenas. His comments came despite a memo from the league office instructing teams to prepare for that eventuality and make contingency plans to reduce the size of traveling parties.
“I play for the fans, that’s what it’s all about,” James said. “If I show up to the arena and there ain’t no fans there, I ain’t playing.”
On this issue, James, the NBA’s most popular player, does not speak for the league at large. The stark realities of the deadly coronavirus have set in, prompting team meetings, updated protective measures at arenas and altered travel behavior.
“With no disrespect to LeBron, this is a public health crisis that’s bigger than any one person,” said a high-ranking team executive, pointing to large-scale quarantine efforts overseas and a rising death toll domestically. “Personally, I think there’s a good chance we will be forced to play games in empty arenas at some point. The virus is spreading quickly, it’s not contained, and it will not be contained any time soon. The threat [to NBA players and fans] could carry on into next season.”
Another team executive called James’s comment “shortsighted” and “not helpful” given the need to inform the public on the dangers of coronavirus, which had killed more than 20 people in the United States and infected more than 100,000 people globally as of Sunday. Numerous soccer leagues in Europe and Asia have canceled games or played them without fans in attendance. Meanwhile, two Division III men’s basketball tournament games were held in an empty gym at Johns Hopkins University.
“We aren’t exempt,” the executive said. “I’m concerned for [the health of] myself and my kids, and I’m scared for my parents [given their age]. This is an unprecedented test for [President Donald Trump] and our health care system, let alone the NBA. We don’t know where this is going, and it could get really, really bad. That’s not being alarmist. That’s the truth.”
James’ Lakers were one of many teams to hold informational meetings about the virus over the past few days. Those meetings have tended to focus on preventive tips, such as washing hands, using hand sanitizer and avoiding unnecessary contact with fans while giving autographs or taking photographs. Earlier this month, the NBA encouraged players to bump fists rather than high-five during games, but that advice hasn’t yet been widely followed.
Individual teams have started to take additional precautions at their arenas, including the installation of hand sanitizer canisters and the deployment of commercial-grade sanitizer during postgame cleanup efforts. The Golden State Warriors posted signs at Chase Center, explicitly warning fans that “attending tonight’s game could increase your risk of contracting coronavirus.” Those signs were posted Friday, shortly after California declared a state of emergency and San Francisco’s public health department recommended that all “Non-essential large gatherings should be cancelled or postponed.”
Team staffers also met this weekend to develop plans of action if the virus worsens, per the league’s request. In its most recent memo, the NBA instructed each team to enlist a disease specialist, establish testing procedures and locations, and determine which employees would be essential members of their traveling parties in the event that coronavirus spreads dramatically before the conclusion of the season. ESPN and the Athletic first reported the contents of the memo, which mandated that teams report back to the NBA about their progress Tuesday.
Travel plans are already changing. Some league personnel who had planned to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this weekend opted not to go, while others who did attend awkwardly avoided high-fives and agonized over the risk of exposure.
“The whole thing was weird,” said an executive who attended, noting that the South by Southwest festival, which was scheduled for later this month in Austin, Texas, was canceled because of coronavirus fears. “We were asking each other whether we should have even been there.”
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association remain in daily contact as the league’s plans continue to unfold, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Many coaches and players have been reluctant to speak publicly about coronavirus because of the high stakes and its unexpected arrival during the middle of the playoff push.
“The NBA and its teams are seeking the most accurate information and distributing it as quickly as possible,” said one team executive. “This is the real deal. LeBron’s heart was in the right place, but [fans] should listen to the [medical] experts.”