There’s no bringing the games back until the fans can come with them

It's a rich tapestry of reaction as Tiger Woods urges his chip shot to drop on No. 16 during the final round of the 2005 Masters.

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It's a rich tapestry of reaction as Tiger Woods urges his chip shot to drop on No. 16 during the final round of the 2005 Masters.

There is much that I took for granted three weeks ago that I cherish today, toilet paper heading the list. Henceforth, I shall never deploy one precious square without first singing a hymn of thanks to both Procter and Gamble.

A little more down that list is the paying sports fan and the contribution he, she or — in some of the more drunken cases, it — makes to the enjoyment of our games. These fans can be rude; they can be crude; they can create an awful jam on Georgia 316 when you just want to get home after covering a night game at Sanford Stadium.

But, bless them all, they do make the experience so much more piquant. They take the black and white of these analytics we foist upon sports and give them all the colors of a Sherwin Williams ad. They are the sound and, in many cases, the fury. Otherwise, without them, all you have are intramurals.

This became a topic when at the beginning of the coronavirus wave here in the U.S. some leagues toyed with the idea of continuing the games, only without fans in the stands.

And that idea still will get some play among those wishing to rush our athletes back to work. Anything just to hasten the return to normalcy — even if the solution is utterly abnormal.

When first floated by such usually astute institutions as the NBA and the PGA Tour (at the Players Championship), the fan ban was a bad idea born, as many are, of desperation. And it will continue to be a very bad idea.

What’s the point of bringing back sports if it is done to the sound of no hands clapping?

Games without fans would be like rock n’ roll without the guitar, a chip without the salsa, the Seinfeld rerun without the laugh track.

One of my favorite sports photos — the one appearing atop these words, snapped by Brant Sanderlin, then of the AJC — is an homage to the fan (with a little Tiger Woods thrown in there, too). Surrounding one of Woods’ most famous shots — the chip-in on No. 16 at the ’05 Masters that hung so tantalizingly on the lip — was a veritable Norman Rockwell portrait of fan reaction. You could argue that the woman in the green flowered pants, the one looking like she’s hugging an invisible downed power cable, was every bit as important to that moment as the golfer wearing his Sunday red. Airbrush out the fans in that photo — the equivalent of what would happen if we allowed the games to go on in empty venues — and the impact is more than halved.

LeBron James throws around opinions as freely as a pizza maker throws dough. So many views does James possess that he even had two of them on the possibility of playing games without fans. Take your pick.

I preferred his initial one, before he softened the stance: “We play games without the fans? Nah, that’s impossible,” he said. “I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates, and I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. So, 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.”

One of few benefits of having no live sports on TV was that earlier this week a person could watch replays of both Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder fights. And while disturbing — mostly because Fury seems incapable of keeping his tongue in his mouth for more than three seconds — the spectacle did affirm the power of the crowd. Its chants were uplifting. Its reaction when a blow was landed reached through the screen and tapped the viewer on the chin.

Playing without customers in the seats is considered punishment in many parts of the world where soccer hooliganism sometimes makes civil gathering impossible. Hopefully that will never be the case here at any stadium, where the only punishment comes when it’s time to pay for the season ticket.

Imagine if you can an Atlanta United game without its canyon of youthful banner-waving, ever-harmonizing, never-sitting fans. Without them, it would be just a soccer still-life.

So, while I may get quite irked when Fox cuts away between every pitch to some fan gnawing off a finger in anxiety and while their passion sometimes spills way over the seawall of reason, fans are to be embraced now, not excluded.

May the games never resume without them in the seats, armed with the realization that they are every bit as invaluable as toilet paper.

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