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It feels so symbolic of our impotence in the face of the coronavirus. The National Basketball Association has issued some helpful hints to players to slow the spreading of the virus. They include asking players to “fist bump” fans instead of high-fiving them. This is a sport where sweaty bodies, dressed in tank tops and shorts, slam into one another in front of 20,000 people who sit in these indoor germatoriums of arenas, and all NBA commissioner Adam Silver can offer is the suggestion of a fist bump. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Far more likely is that, at some point, possibly very soon, the NBA will be canceling or rescheduling games or it will stage contests, as it has done in Italy, in front of empty stands.
Silver has also, in his memo, advised the washing of hands. In other words, this multibillion-dollar entity, with its parade of millionaire superstars, can only offer what the rest of us have been given: suggestions of basic hygiene. It’s a tissue umbrella in the face of a hurricane, at best slowing what is inexorably coming in our direction.
Basketball is not the only sport reckoning with the coronavirus. As we wrote earlier this week, there is serious talk about canceling or postponing the Olympics, despite the protestations of IOC chief Thomas Bach and his fear of having to return checks to the true masters of the Olympic movement, their sponsors. ”We would like to encourage all the athletes to continue their preparation for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with great confidence and with full steam.” Bach said earlier this week. Bach sounds like Baghdad Bob, saying everything is going to be all right while his world burns.
The Ladies Professional Golf Association canceled three events in Asia, and they are not alone. An organization with great expectations given the possible influx of talent from the continent, the Basketball Africa League has indefinitely postponed its inaugural season.
These cases might seem far from home, but we now also are having the first major college sports cancellations here as well. The Chicago State University men’s basketball team has made the decision not to travel and play two Western Athletic Conference teams this week. Their women’s team will not be hosting two games at home in Chicago because of the Coronavirus.
In a statement, athletic director Elliott Charles said, “Chicago State athletics views our decision as a reaffirmation of our commitment to the well-being, health and safety of our student athletes.”
Then there is the Arnold Sports Festival in Oho, where Governor Mike DeWine, in the mode of Italian soccer, has decreed that events wil be played in front of empty bleachers. DeWine said in a news release:
Throughout the week I have been working closely with Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, our public health officials and representatives of the Arnold Sports Festival. The mayor, our public health officials and I are gravely concerned that that the event as organized poses a unique and unacceptable risk for the spread of COVID-19 for guests and the community.
Stanford University has taken the step to limit fan attendance to just one-third capacity at arenas to keep people from being in close proximity, which sounds like a half-measure (or a third-measure)—a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. This decision will impact the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, where Stanford was expected to host games.
It feels that everyone is just holding their breath, crossing their fingers, and delaying the inevitable. Sports, in our hyper-atomized, social-media-infused culture, is arguably our last remaining collective space that brings people together from all walks of life, standing, cheering, and even embracing. That means germs, and that means an extremely efficient mechanism for turning this virus into what, according to some health experts, has already become a full-scale pandemic.
Last night, I was coaching my son’s 11- and 12-year-old basketball team, and at the end of practice, instead of all of us putting our hands in the middle and doing a chant, everyone, through an act of awkward contortions, met with our elbows. It was a small statement of personal safety, but also an act of defiance that says that while we will take measures to be hygienic, we will not stop playing until we are actually forced by health officials and the government to take our ball and go home. That day is coming, sooner rather than later, so let’s, please, play while we can.