American Sports Can't Outrun Coronavirus Forever

Kyle Koster
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
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Blind belief in American exceptionalism is a hell of a drug. Downplaying the coronavirus has proven to be a lane people feel comfortable driving in. And who am I to tell them that they're being too dismissive when you can throw a dart and hit six experts who have done nothing but stress how serious the situation has the potential to become?

It's no surprise that it takes more than a few thousand deaths for people to accept that there could be some negative impacts in their everyday lives. It's no surprise that a member of Congress wore a gas mask on the job to mock the fears. It's also not a surprise that the stunt didn't age well.

We've seen a slow sequence of events in the sports world as athletes, organizations, and fans alike slowly begin to process the severity of the risk. The idea that events would be canceled or games would be played in empty gyms was quickly dismissed as recently as a week ago. But the ball is moving down the hill, gaining steam. Pandemics have the habit of outrunning denial.

The issue pierced its way to the most visible person in the arena last night when LeBron James was asked about the possibility of playing in front of zero paying customers.

His answer, though honest, was intensely dismissive. James wanting to play for the fans is admirable and also could be true. And you can tell how seriously the assembled media are treating the topic by the laughter. Yet, if you put the bet in front of me right now, I'd have to think long and hard about putting money on the NBA not eventually taking the precaution.

What then? Is James going to be a no-show? If so, his reason should be that if it's too risky for fans then it's too risky for him. Not that the public doesn't get to see him play in person. Basketball may be life but life is bigger than basketball.

To be clear, my aim is not to fear-monger. At the same time, it's been a bit jarring to see a near-constant dismissal of reality -- or future reality -- when it comes to this outbreak. It is almost everywhere in America now. It is having real impact on lives. That's no conspiracy. Closing one's eyes doesn't not make it go away.

Pretending it's not happening won't help alleviate the problem. It's past time we had a sober reckoning that plans are going to be altered. We're seeing conferences and events canceled. People aren't flying anymore. In Seattle, people have largely become hermits.

This is a change in behavior and it's only a matter of time until it becomes apparent to those uninterested in noticing. James may scoff at the idea that his work life may change. It is certainly not a preposterous idea. And it's small potatoes in comparison to what thousands of others will be facing.

My suggestion here is simple in concept and probably impossible in application.

What if we collectively admitted that we don't have a crystal ball? That this thing could spiral and have impacts most refuse to accept right now. Or it could be another close call, a time where the worst fears weren't realized.

The small details should not obscure the big picture. The NBA playing in front of empty seats, the NCAA Tournament proceeding the same way, or any number of minor inconveniences are just that. Minor.

Perspective is slowly creeping into sports with entities opting to do the responsible thing, if only out of an abundance of caution. It's a challenging thing to maintain, especially with so much money and passion involved.

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