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Coronavirus uncertainty impacting sports, too

scottteaser-215x160The first event I ever covered as a Rochester sportswriter was a riveting 1984 high school basketball game between two area powerhouses. East High wound up nipping McQuaid Jesuit on some late free throws, but that’s not what I remember most all these decades later.

This game has stood the test of time for me because there weren’t any fans in the stands. And that was by design. The gymnasium was sans fans because days earlier the Rochester City School District had imposed a spectator ban after numerous fights broke out in the bleachers at recent games. So, the only people who wound up watching this highly anticipated match-up were me and a handful of reporters, statisticians, cheerleaders and school officials. Blaring scoreboard buzzers, squeaking sneakers, screaming coaches and vociferous cheerleaders stomping their feet and exhorting their team to “rebound that basketball” never sounded so loud.

I wrote that it was one of the best high school basketball games you never saw. One of the strangest, too. Without the fans’ reaction to the action, the atmosphere lacked electricity, felt more like a scrimmage. At one point, I remember putting down my notepad and scurrying over to retrieve a basketball that had bounded several rows up into the empty bleachers.

I thought about this surreal game recently while assessing the impact the worrisome coronavirus is having on sports and beyond. Spectator bans already have been initiated at Italian soccer matches, Japanese spring training baseball games and some Division III basketball contests in the states. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has asked that fans be barred from indoor events in his state, including upcoming Cleveland Cavaliers and NCAA tournament games. And some major events, including the BNP Paribas Open — one of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournaments — have been canceled because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus in places like Southern California. The Ivy League followed suit by canceling its men’s hoops tournament this week.

The National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, National Collegiate Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee have developed coronavirus contingency plans in hopes of stopping this potentially deadly respiratory disease from spreading exponentially.

Imagine a March Madness without zany college students in the stands? Or a Masters golf tournament without any galleries, especially on a Sunday with Tiger Woods in contention? Or no Summer Olympics in Tokyo this July? Sadly, these are all real possibilities as communities and entire countries employ social distancing measures, including the avoidance of large public gatherings in hopes of slowing transmission of the coronavirus.

Locally, the games go on, but for how long is anyone’s guess. The Rochester Americans, Knighthawks and Lancers, as well as area colleges and high schools, continue to open their arenas and gyms. The Red Wings aren’t scheduled to play their regular season home opener at Frontier Field until April 9, so there’s still time — and hope — that the situation improves, despite indications from the scientific community that COVID-19 has spread more broadly than positive tests reflect.

“We are monitoring the situation closely, along with MLB and minor-league baseball, and we will follow their lead,’’ said Wings General Manager Dan Mason. “But as of now we are preparing for the season as if it will happen as scheduled and we will adjust as necessary.”

It’s a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, you want to mitigate the virus’s spread and avoid creating mass panic. On the other hand, you would prefer for life to go on as normal as possible, particularly at a time when we seem to be more polarized and socially disconnected than ever.

Clearly, these are unchartered waters. This isn’t like World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the value of continuing to play MLB games. He wanted to provide a morale boost during a time of international crisis, so he greenlighted the games. Nor is this like post-9/11, when the resumption of games in a small way helped a wounded nation regain its footing.

The NBA has considered playing games in empty arenas. As I learned on a much smaller scale while covering that spectator-less high school game way back when, this can feel and look strange. LeBron James initially said he wouldn’t play in such games because that would be insulting to fans, and he says he plays for the fans. (In reality, he plays for fame and fortune, but that’s not the point here.) After severe backlash, King James changed his stance. On Tuesday, he said he will play in games without spectators if that’s what NBA officials decide.

Actually, having the games go on in empty arenas and stadiums is not a terrible idea, as long as it doesn’t pose any health threats for players, coaches, officials and stadium and arena workers. If things grow worse, more Americans will be quarantined. Televised sports could provide an outlet for the shut-ins, so there might be value in playing even without spectators.

I was reminded about the importance of sports when I attended a World Series game at Yankee Stadium six weeks after 9/11. But sports aren’t life and death. Health and safety obviously matter more. We need to listen to the medical scientists as we negotiate these rough seas.

It’s a tad scary dealing with this unknown. More games probably will be canceled. Or they may go on without spectators for a time. As I discovered in that near-empty gymnasium 36 years ago, that can be bizarre but necessary.

Best-selling author and nationally honored columnist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.     

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