The NBA’s Right To Suspend Games. But Others Shouldn’t Panic And Follow Suit - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Millions of fans watching on television need those two hours where they can switch off from coronavirus concerns.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

You never notice how loud a sound a basketball makes when it hits the hardwood until you sit courtside at a game without fans. The squeak of sneakers. Coaches calling plays. I swear I could even hear the “swissssssh” of the flag, as the team mascot, standing alone, waved a giant banner in an attempt to distract an opposing player.

I work as a sideline reporter, and last week, for the first time in my life, I covered a game without fans. All over Europe, sporting events are either being played with a limited crowd or behind closed doors due to the coronavirus. Italy has suspended all domestic sports events at least until early April, with the entire country placed under lockdown.

And on Wednesday, the NBA suspended the season indefinitely after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus. Players from the team and from the Oklahoma City Thunder — who were about to square off when the game was called off — have been quarantined.

It’s a worrying time, and the health of players is critical. Other teams potentially exposed in recent days to the Utah Jazz should likely be quarantined too. Because it’s hard to know exactly where to stop, the NBA’s decision to suspend the league indefinitely makes sense. It’s also understandable that individual players in other leagues might be concerned about playing, picking up the virus and spreading it further. But leagues — while being sensitive to these concerns — must consider other factors too, before they panic and automatically follow suit.

The association’s decision comes amid a growing debate over whether sports matches should be held in empty arenas. Asked about that possibility last week, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James insisted: “I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd.” This week, he clarified his comments, saying he would be “very disappointed” to play behind closed doors, but would listen to experts. 

For now, he won’t get to play at all.

It goes without saying that the health of players and fans is paramount, and games without fans aren’t the same. Yet there’s a happy mean that the world needs right now: stadiums without fans, but with important games going on as scheduled as long as there are no specific concerns about players or teams involved. That’s critical for sports lovers watching on television to feel a semblance of normalcy amid a global crisis.

We’re starting to see some governments and sports leagues follow that approach. On Wednesday, the Israeli government banned gatherings of more than 100 people, and declared that all sports events will be held without a crowd. Season-ending college basketball tournaments in the U.S. — including the hallowed March Madness — will be played to empty stadiums and TV cameras.

What athletes everywhere need to remember is that at the end of the day, the fans are still there … they’re just at home, craving two coronavirus-free hours.

For sports players who draw their energy from fans, it won’t be easy. They’ll have to prepare mentally for a game without a crowd, one that feels more like practice. 

“[For] athletes, a lot of times their motivation comes from the outside,” explains Ishay Tsur, a psychologist for Mental Jump, an Israel-based counseling center, who works with athletes. “Of course motivation is also internal, to succeed, to meet personal goals, but often it’s to succeed for people who are important to me — for family, for fans.”

What athletes everywhere need to remember is that at the end of the day, the fans are still there — and they need them playing for them, more than ever. They’re just at home, craving two coronavirus-free hours during which they can watch some ball. That’s especially so since it could be months before the coronavirus scare passes.

And if we’re already talking about playing for fans at home, LeBron James, the NBA, the Champions League and sports as a whole knows no borders. There may be 20,000 fans in the Staples Center, but there are millions watching worldwide. Right now some of them may be in quarantine. Some, unfortunately, may have already tested positive for the virus (and we hope everyone recovers, and quickly). 

Right now, they need this.

For players, the coronavirus crisis can in fact serve as motivation, says Tsur. “As a player, because you are connecting to something that is bigger than you, it gives a lot of motivation,” he says. That takes preparation. “For example, a coach needs to communicate this to his player, talk between them, to say we need to give extra for the people who can’t, the people who are sitting at home right now,” Tsur explains.

It may not be fun, but we’ve seen over the last few days in Europe that it is possible. We’ve watched players celebrate as if there were thousands of people in the crowd, holding up signs of encouragement to those at home.

Things are changing quickly, and by tomorrow we could be facing a different reality. Make no mistake: Everyone’s health comes before everything else. But if we can, and if players are willing, we must hold on to some sense of normalcy. For the fans.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!