Coronavirus is in the U.S. How will NBA, NCAA, other sports leagues respond?


The infectious COVID-19 disease spreading across the globe has officially made its way to the United States. More than a dozen cases have been reported. One, in Washington state, led to death.

It is only a matter of time, experts believe, before the coronavirus spreads further. And only a matter of time, therefore, before worry turns into action. Before social distancing measures are put in place. Before large public gatherings are shut down.

And very few public gatherings, if any, put gatherers at more risk than major sporting events do.

This weekend, tens of thousands of fans will pack into NBA, NHL and college basketball arenas; MLS and XFL stadiums; and MLB spring training parks. At such games, says Bill Schaeffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, “People are within 3-6 feet of each other all the time. So there’s ample opportunity for viruses to spread.”

For that reason, sporting events around the world have already been affected by the coronavirus. Italian authorities have postponed multiple top-flight soccer games, including Sunday’s Serie A showdown between Juventus and Inter Milan. Olympic qualifiers of all kinds have been canceled, postponed or relocated. Japanese baseball games and European soccer matches have and will be played in empty stadiums. The Olympics are seemingly under threat.

And so, as the virus spreads to the U.S., Schaeffner says, U.S. sports leagues will be “nervous.” And they’ll be thinking: “Is it responsible to keep having these mass events?”

Yahoo Sports reached out to the NBA, NCAA, MLB, MLS, NHL and XFL to find out whether that question has been asked internally by league officials, and to ask what contingency plans or potential countermeasures have been discussed. Here’s what we know so far.

NBA, NCAA statements on the coronavirus

No sports organization has more to lose over the coming month than the NCAA, whose banner event, March Madness, begins in a little over two weeks. On Saturday, an advocacy group for college athletes called on the NCAA to “take precautions to protect college athletes,” and to make its plans public. The group, the National College Players Association, suggested “cancelling all auxiliary events that put players in contact with crowds,” and said there should be “serious discussion” about playing NCAA tournament games with no fans present.

The NCAA, in a statement to Yahoo Sports, said that its Sport Science Institute had recently sent two memos to NCAA members “directing schools and conference offices to Center for Disease Control and Prevention resources on the issue.”

“Otherwise,” an NCAA spokesman continued, “NCAA staff continues to prepare for all NCAA winter and spring championships, but we are keenly aware of coronavirus and will continue to monitor in coordination with state/local health authorities and the CDC.”

The NBA, which will play games every day between now and April 15, had a similarly vague statement. Spokesman Mike Bass told Yahoo Sports: “The health and safety of our employees, teams, players and fans is paramount. We are coordinating with our teams and consulting with the CDC and infectious disease specialists on the coronavirus, and continue to monitor the situation closely.”

MLS forms task force; games in Portland, Seattle still on

The issue is perhaps most pressing in MLS. Both the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders host games on Sunday, and again next Saturday. Coronavirus cases have been reported in both Oregon and Washington.

As of Saturday evening, no significant special measures were in place for those games or any others. However, the Sounders said they’d have “additional hand sanitizer stations throughout CenturyLink Field,” plus sanitary wipes at concession stands. They’re “maintaining real-time communication with regional health authorities,” and participating in both a regional task force and a league task force.

And MLS, in a statement to Yahoo Sports, said:

Major League Soccer has formed a task force to manage the response of the league and its clubs to COVID-19. The task force is comprised of executives responsible for the principal league functions and includes MLS’ Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Margot Putukian. The league is in direct contact with the relevant governmental agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Public Health Agency of Canada and is also coordinating with other sporting organizations. The task force has been monitoring the most recent developments and communicating with MLS clubs regarding appropriate measures to take as the situation continues to evolve.

PORTLAND, OREGON - FEBRUARY 22: A general view inside the stadium before the Major League Soccer preseason match between Minnesota United FC and Vancouver Whitecaps at Providence Park on February 22, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images)
The Portland Timbers host Minnesota United on Sunday as concerns about the coronavirus in the region grow. (Soobum Im/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, has been monitoring the virus and consulting with the CDC and HHS, and passing guidance along to its 30 teams. Its season does not start until March 26. But there is a good chance the virus will have spread by then.

The NHL and XFL have not yet responded to Yahoo Sports’ request for comment.

What will U.S. sports leagues do?

The question that will gnaw at league officials: Are they responsible for the health of their ticket-buying fans?

If, say, the NBA holds games as planned, and allows fans to make their own decisions with respect to the virus, and droves of game-attending fans contract it, is the NBA in the wrong?

Which leads to the big question: Should sports leagues tell fans not to come? Or allow those fans to choose on an individual-by-individual basis?

“I think in the United States, there will be much more letting people make up their own minds,” Schaeffner says. “Here in the United States, we make recommendations. We don’t impose requirements so often. So I think there’ll be a lot of people being reclusive on a voluntary basis.”

If the virus spreads prolifically, that could mean half-empty “sold-out” stadiums.

Another issue, then, could be refunds. Say the NBA publicly acknowledges the risk, and warns fans, but says the game will go on and allows them to make their own decisions about attendance. If a fan decides she would rather not put herself in harm’s way, would she be able to get her money back? (And then what about the Warriors or Wolves fans who want refunds – but more so because they’ve realized they’d rather not pay to see their awful teams?)

If, however, there is a major outbreak in a given city or region, leagues could consider postponing games or playing them behind closed doors. “Then there may well be pressure on the people who run any kind of activity that brings people together face-to-face to not do that.”

Will players be at risk?

As for the players and coaches and team staff, Schaeffner doesn’t think playing games in front of fans would put the athletes at risk. “This virus travels, for the most part, within 3-6 feet,” he says.

He assumes franchises will, however, instruct players not to sign autographs and interact with fans. Perhaps they’ll arrive earlier at stadiums, or via back routes, to avoid coming into contact with fans seeking high-fives or pictures. “You can have all kinds of little strategies,” Schaeffner says. Some European soccer teams have already put some of those strategies in place.

“If, when, this virus spreads more in the United States, there will be all kinds of ramifications,” Schaeffner says. “Because the social distancing initiative, other than washing your hands and avoiding people who are coughing and sneezing, that’s really the only mechanism we have to try and reduce the transmission in our population.

“So there’ll be a lot of social discombobulation. And sporting events are mass gatherings. There will be a call not to hold them. There will be a call to not attend them, even if they’re not forbidden. Just don’t go there. So this is going to have big social, economic, cultural repercussions.

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