On Monday, two days before it was due to start, organizers called off the ATP/WTA tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif.
The reason? One case of the new coronavirus was confirmed in nearby Coachella Valley.
In a release, the tournament name-checked a variety of authorities: “This is following the guidance of medical professionals, the Centers for Disease Control and state of California.”
Indian Wells is commonly known as tennis’s fifth major. This is the first “big deal” cancellation in North America. It’s a moment, but it doesn’t yet look like a precedent.
The French Open starts on May 24. France has been hit far harder by COVID-19 than California. All gatherings of more than 1,000 people are banned throughout that country.
But before the decision was taken at Indian Wells, French Open organizers were twisting themselves in knots trying to explain how their sports event is not like other sports events.
The head of the French tennis association went so far as to tell reporters that the tournament’s main, roofed arena does not qualify as “a confined space.”
“It is covered,” Jean-François Vilotte said. “But there are spaces between the stands and the roof which make it not a confined enclosure.”
By this definition, a prison cell isn’t a confined space, as long as you can’t touch the ceiling when you stand on tip-toes.
This is where public safety starts coming into conflict with money, with money still carrying the day in most instances.
There is only one really good way to prevent COVID-19 from infecting your sports event – by preventing anyone from coming to your sports event.
Leagues across North America are currently somewhere between the zero-risk outlook taken by Indian Wells and the laissez-faire approach. We might call this middle space the Theatre of Prevention. It sounds like they’re doing something, even if they’re actually doing nothing.
On Monday, the Toronto Maple Leafs took the NHL up on its suggestion that teams may choose to close locker rooms to the media.
Given how things are going for the Leafs, they’re probably hoping commissioner Gary Bettman tells them to cover the press box in a tarp, lest anyone up there see what’s happening on the ice.
With no locker-room access, players were instead brought individually into a different room inside Scotiabank Arena to address the filthy members of the media.
This smacks to me of “Why bring the lepers to you, when you can go to the lepers?” thinking, but I’m no epidemiologist.
Things will be different at the Leafs’ usual practice facility in the city’s west end, because it has no special room for this purpose. Instead, players will meet the cameras in an “open area” – this must mean the tunnel down which they park the Zamboni – and speak from behind a roped-off line.
The rope is meant “to create a bit of a physical barrier,” a team spokesperson said.
This makes good sense, since I always prefer to do my scrums with John Tavares while sitting in his lap. Look him right in the eyes. Really get the feel of what he’s saying.
What you can’t help but notice is that while a great deal of effort is being taken to protect the players from us, no one’s worried about protecting us from each other. The stands of Scotiabank Arena and dozens more like it across the continent continue to be filled and rope-free.
If the players are right to feel afraid, why wouldn’t the ticket-buying audience – which is being told it is not in any danger as yet – feel the same way? This doesn’t pass the logic test.
These measures aren’t pointless – I’m sure the players love them – but they raise questions about how much is too little and how much is too much.
Cancelling a major event altogether because one person unconnected to it is sick? At this precise moment, that seems like too much.
Not because it’s a ridiculous thing to do, but because it creates the impression that we ought not go anywhere where we’ll be around a bunch of other people. If a tennis tournament had to be shut down, why are movie theatres still open? Why can Californians still go to restaurants, bars, community centres and shopping malls? Surely those places present a similar risk?
What’s needed is a co-ordinated, continent-wide sports approach. France did this with its maximum-attendance limit. Italy did it by cancelling all sports for the next month.
In North America, we’re still leaving it up to individual leagues and tournaments, resulting in ad-hoc confusion.
Though they’re all doing it differently, every news release about this or that preventive measure cites medical professionals as its guide. It gives the impression none of these unnamed professionals talk to one another. That’s when confusion starts spreading into the general population. What is still reasonably safe to do, and what isn’t?
If you ask the IIHF (which just cancelled the women’s world hockey championships, citing “a recommendation by public health experts”) and the IOC (which recently said it will plow on with the Tokyo Olympics, citing “the advice of [the World Health Organization]”), you get answers at either end of the spectrum.
The difference? Money. The IIHF doesn’t make a bucketload off the women’s world championships, while the IOC will need shipping containers to move its Tokyo cash. They are financially motivated to keep believing in a best-case outcome.
The NHL, NBA and most of the rest are still in the IOC’s camp. They don’t want to hold games in front of empty arenas – although that would make the players a hell of a lot safer than asking the media to stop pawing them – because that’s bad for business.
It’s likely only two things will move them – the government or widespread public panic. If it comes to it, I’d prefer the government route.
Until that happens or the threat recedes, we get the Theatre of Prevention instead of measures that look like the actual thing.