Should Coronavirus Impact the Sports Calendar?

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As we head into spring, we also enter one of the busiest times on the American sports calendar, with events such as the NCAA Tournament, MLB opening day and the NBA and NHL playoffs on the horizon. But the nature of sporting events, where masses of people travel to be live and in-person at a stadium or arena, makes them seemingly vulnerable to disease outbreaks. With coronavirus grabbing headlines, will these highlights of the sports calendar be affected?

According to the Wall Street Journal, sports leagues are “monitoring the situation closely.” Despite experts warning against outright cancellations of mass events, if the U.S. were to follow the lead of other countries in Asia and Europe, certain events might look very different.

The Journal reports that a Japanese baseball league is playing its preseason entirely behind closed doors, and that national soccer and basketball leagues have seen their seasons postponed at least until mid-March. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland has reportedly banned gatherings of 1,000 people or more — meaning its national hockey league is playing in empty venues, and France and Italy have lost marathons and soccer matches to similar sacrifices in the name of public health.

Are such cancellations an effective way to stop the spread of disease?

“During a pandemic, there’s really not a lot of evidence that canceling mass gatherings is of much benefit,” Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief of health services for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics told the Journal. The Vancouver Games came after the peak of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak. “If you think back to H1N1, you probably don’t recall a lot of cancellations.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told the Journal that cancellations could come nevertheless, if health authorities recommend an intervention called social distancing. The Journal reports that social distancing can help slow the spread of disease and give strained healthcare systems time to prepare.

“You can’t expect to turn this off like a lightswitch,” Schaffner told the Journal. “But there are some data to suggest that social distancing has had some modest impact on the spread of the virus. You can buy yourself some time.”

The National College Players Association, which represents Division I NCAA athletes, has been vocal in urging the NCAA to take coronavirus seriously. 

“In the wake of the wake of the emerging coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA and its colleges should take precautions to protect college athletes. They should also make public which actions will be taken and when. Precautions should include canceling all auxiliary events that put players in contact with crowds such as meet and greets and press events. Athletic programs should also take every possible measure to sanitize buses and airplanes used to transport players,” an NCPA statement on the virus reads. 

“In regard to the NCAA’s March Madness Tournament and other athletic events, there should be a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present.”

Meanwhile, individual athletic conferences such as the SEC and Pac-12 Conference have not yet altered schedules.

The NBA and its Players Association have worked to prepare a strategy on coronavirus, which according to ESPN suggested limiting autographs and switching from high-fives to fist-bumps.

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