During the weekend, the NBA began preparing its teams for the possibility that games in the near future could be played in empty arenas.
Parts of Europe have already taken the step as a measure to contain the spread of coronavirus. Italy, which is quickly moving into Albert Camus territory, has decreed that all Serie A games be played in isolation for the remainder of the season. Just about everything else in the northern portion of the country is shut down entirely.
Apparently, you can cancel Italy, but you can’t cancel soccer in Italy.
North American leagues aren’t yet at the point of discussing bans, but they want very badly to be seen discussing those as-yet-to-occur discussions. This is PR 101 – stay ahead of the story.
Everything was progressing nicely until someone asked LeBron James about the theoretical measures.
“I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd,” James said Friday. “If I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”
James is the alpha of North American sport. What he says carries enormous weight across all leagues. Since most athletes aren’t exactly bold, independent thinkers, James’s pronouncements are often functional diktats about how pros should comport themselves.
He’s often used this power for good, but he’s got this one wrong.
Because this is rapidly moving from what we’d all prefer to happen (a blissful state in which most Westerners have spent their entire lives) to what’s going to happen whether we like it or not.
Everyone’s going to have to do their little bit for the collective good. That includes the LeBron Jameses of the world. Their job is to provide audio-visual evidence that our society is just winding down for a few weeks or months, and not in the midst of collapse.
A lot of things may get put on hold in the next little while. Sports cannot be one of them. Not unless things take a really bad turn.
Of course, reasonable measures are, well, reasonable. During the weekend, you could see various leagues taking small steps in this direction.
The NHL suggested to teams they think about shutting their locker rooms to the media. No one’s instructed them to do so. Not yet. Just asked them to consider it. (That consideration will involve team executives gathering in a hallway to do a co-ordinated fist pump while yelling, “Finally!”)
Does this protect anyone in any real way? Probably not. The players will still do pressers. They’ll still have to walk among the filthy horde of us to get anywhere. The media will still be in the building, breathing on people and fondling the doorknobs.
But it gets everyone else used to what’s coming – that the things we used to do in groups, we will have to start doing alone.
Aside from the virus itself, this is the most dreadful prospect about what lies ahead. That we are moving from a communal way of living – travelling together, sitting together while we work, spending our free time together – to a solitary one.
While in the midst of an apocalypse grocery shop the other day, this idea sort of appealed to me. I could do with a few weeks of monkish isolation in which to gather my thoughts. Hit that pile of books at the bedside. Watch all five seasons of The Wire again. Learn how to knit.
But monks get to choose how and when they are sequestered and – this part is important – when it ends.
As some variation of quarantine grows closer to an enforced reality, it seems a lot less romantic. No one wants to be told where they can and can’t go, and whom they can and can’t be with. It sounds awfully lonely.
This is where sports can help.
Sports are normalcy. They happen on all seven days of the week at roughly the same time. For a large segment of society, they are our longest running soap opera. You know all the characters. You pull for the ones who represent your city or community.
Even if you are physically alone while you’re watching sports, it doesn’t feel that way. Because you know millions of other people are watching them at the same time, thinking the same things you are thinking. These are often bilious thoughts – “Trade this dummy” or “Cut this bozo” or “Trade this dummy so some other bozo can cut him” – but that’s the point of watching sports. It is modern society’s release valve. It harmlessly bleeds off excess steam.
The idea of games played in empty stadiums is eerie, but it won’t change that core relationship between people, their TVs and their teams. This is one of the few things we can all do together, even when we are not.
Although the pros may not think about it this way, that’s the reason they are paid so much money. It isn’t to put balls in nets. It is to provide a monolithic spectacle that plays a crucial role in social cohesion. They are glue that helps bind our communities.
That can’t stop because it no longer feels like fun for the people who do it. If that’s the only objection, that’s not nearly good enough.
The athlete’s job in whatever lies ahead is to remind people that life goes on. That we will come out the other side of this – whatever “this” turns out to be.
Their role is supplying nightly reassurance that something that looks like regular life is continuing, even if life gets irregular.
Sports has got a lot from us over the years, probably more than its fair share. In unusual times such as these, sports owes it to all of us to pay a little back.