Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies on the coronavirus outbreak before the House Oversight & Reform Committee in Washington, Wednesday, March 11, 2020.
Photo: Pete Marovich/The New York Times
Photo: Pete Marovich/The New York Times

Coronavirus forces sports leagues to stop grabbing for money

The NBA did not take a bold, progressive stand for public health. The league tried holding on to as much revenue as it could until it had no choice but to let it go. Once Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the COVID-19 viral disease, the league stopped grabbing for television cash and suspended play indefinitely as of Thursday. 

The NCAA tried to get by with a half-measure that the NBA abandoned. It wanted to stage its men’s basketball tournament as scheduled next week with no fans in arenas to make good on its $8 billion TV contract. Duke and Kansas undermined that plan by pulling out of the tourney, then the ACC announced that all its schools would suspend athletics travel. 

As warnings and worries about the novel coronavirus multiplied Wednesday, it became clear that sports leagues couldn’t operate as usual. It took some time for all of them to fully accept that reality. Eventually the NBA, NCAA, MLB, NHL and MLS all suspended, postponed or canceled games. 

If they can help it, sports leagues won’t do anything that costs them money. The coronavirus made it so they can’t help it. This is a matter of public health or, to put it in business terms, potential liability and public backlash. People might still watch games on television, but it’s a bad look when players become victims of a pandemic or leagues contribute to its spread. 

The novel coronavirus got the pandemic designation from the World Health Organization on Wednesday morning. The cancellation of games didn’t seem inevitable at that point. It started to feel that way once Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress that the worst is yet to come. 

Fauci said that “anything that has large crowds is something that would give a risk to spread.” Health officials recommend “social distancing” as a measure to stop the spread of the virus. That’s the opposite of crowds gathering in arenas. 

The NBA and NCAA had to forfeit the live-gate money. They still wanted the TV cash. Gobert’s positive test for novel coronavirus changed that calculation for the NBA. The league postponed the Jazz’s game at Oklahoma City just before tip-off, then later announced Gobert’s diagnosis and the suspension of all games. 

» More AJC coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

On Thursday, Gobert’s teammate, Donavan Mitchell, confirmed that he also tested positive for novel coronavirus. ESPN reported that the NBA asked teams that played the Jazz recently to self-quarantine. That includes the Knicks, who beat the Hawks on Wednesday night at State Farm Arena. 

The NBA had to stop playing games. Earlier this week it was among major sports leagues that limited close interactions between players and media. Then it became an issue of safety for spectators in arenas. Finally, the NBA had to act to prevent the coronavirus from spreading among its players. 

The NCAA was slower to accept its fate. There had been no reported positive tests among its athletes. Most schools were prepared to play men’s conference tournament games Thursday afternoon. Every conference except the Big East came to their senses and canceled their events before more games were played. 

St. John’s and Creighton started their Big East game at Madison Square Garden in front of friends, family, support staff and media. They didn’t finish it. At halftime, the league finally canceled the rest of its tournament. 

Unlike NBA teams, college programs don’t have to think about protecting their investment in player salaries. Still, holding the basketball tournaments as scheduled would undermine the NCAA’s propaganda about the well-being of athletes as the top priority. Obvious hypocrisy hardly hurts the profits of major college athletics, but the ACC decided that sending its players on the court during a pandemic for TV money would be too much. 

Basketball legend Charles Barkley is a TV commentator for the NCAA men’s tournament. He went on ESPN on Thursday morning and pleaded for those in charge to think about what they’re doing. 

“I probably shouldn’t say it because I work for CBS,” Barkley said. “(But) I think we’re going to have to shut down March Madness until we know more.” 

That’s the sensible thing for all sports leagues to do. Stop playing the games now, then figure out how to proceed later. That should be the obvious choice during a pandemic that can be worsened by large public gatherings, but money can cloud judgment. 

At about the same time that college basketball tournaments were canceled, MLS announced that it also would suspend play. The NHL did the same. MLB canceled spring training games and pushed back the start of the season. The NFL doesn’t have games scheduled until late summer, but the Falcons said they were discontinuing business travel for football staff and cleaning their facilities.    

In a matter of hours, the COVID-19 viral disease went from the periphery of the sports world to dramatically upending it. Sports leagues tried to keep as much revenue as they could. Eventually, they had to give up on trying to stuff their pockets and concede to this public health crisis.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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