As the NBA shuts down, a reminder that dealing with the fear of coronavirus is at least as important as the disease

Expect the NHL and Major League Baseball to follow suit soon.

SHARE As the NBA shuts down, a reminder that dealing with the fear of coronavirus is at least as important as the disease
Cleveland Cavaliers v Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ Tomas Satoransky meets with reporters in the United Center press lounge Tuesday because of the NBA’s decision to close locker rooms to the media in reaction to the coronavirus threat.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

My thoroughly uneducated guess is that we’re overreacting to the coronavirus. But what I’m absolutely sure of is that the fear surrounding it is real and that the fear might matter more than the disease.

The NBA suspended its season Wednesday night after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. That almost certainly will set off a domino effect, with the NHL and Major League Baseball, two weeks from Opening Day, likely to respond in similar fashion.

It’s the right thing to do because this is not just about the coronavirus. It’s about the possibility of panic, and nothing will stir up panic quite like celebrities and famous athletes getting sick. Tom Hanks says he has the virus. God help us all.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the flu has infected 34 million Americans, hospitalized 350,000 and killed 20,000 since Oct. 1. That has freaked out exactly no one. But a new disease, one with the same symptoms and no vaccines, already has changed our lives and figures to affect the sports world more than most parts of our daily existence. The concern stems from a higher death rate for the coronavirus than the flu (for now), a lack of knowledge about the disease and a poor job of explaining the outbreak to the public. Social media has lived up to its reputation for making things worse.

But, again, fear is really what we’re dealing with here. The reality is that too many people view COVID-19 as if it were the bubonic plague. And so there is reaction and overreaction. History will be the judge of which is which.

Before the NBA’s announcement, most of the major sports leagues were contemplating whether to play games without fans in attendance. The NBA’s decision to suspend its season will completely shift the debate.

At a minimum, a fan-less existence is going to happen at stadiums throughout the sports world for an extended period. The NCAA announced Wednesday that its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played without fans in the stands, in the hope of stopping the virus’ spread. If it stops the anxiety as much as it does the coronavirus, it’s a good thing.

Illinois High School Association executive director Craig Anderson said the Class 1A and Class 2A state tournaments are still on for this weekend in Peoria. The IHSA will “put out some hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes in a lot of locations,’’ he said. “We will have signage directing and recommending people wash their hands and do those kind of things.”

Let’s see how long that plan lasts.

The Mariners announced Wednesday that they would move their first seven home games to another location because of Washington state’s ban on large group events in response to the coronavirus.

There don’t seem to be many relative downsides to any of this, though it will cost the powers that be money. And you know what that means: ticket-price increases down the line. But we can live with empty stadiums, and so can the players. We’ve already learned to live with greedy owners.

The outbreak is another reminder of how large a role sports play in our lives. Stadiums and ballparks are where we gather in large numbers. They’re our public squares. Sports glue us together. It makes sense that the games we watch would be at the forefront of the discussion on the coronavirus and, possibly, on how to hold it at bay. Again, a good thing. Still, the approaching silence will take some getting used to. It will be more unsettling to an already unsettled public. But the fear is real. It has to be respected, as much as the virus does.

The NBA, the NHL, MLB and Major League Soccer recently closed their locker rooms and clubhouses to the media, which seemed like an odd first step and a new twist on “killing the messenger.’’ Now the messenger is a killer armed with a cough? I’ve been in enough clubhouses to know that they’re one big Petri dish without any help from the media. I’ll stop viewing the locker-room ban with suspicion only when it’s lifted. Until then, I’ll wonder if the grand plan is to keep it in place long after the virus subsides.

But it’s all a moot point now, isn’t it?

Cutting down on human contact seems like an adult approach. Whispering doesn’t. Too many people seem to know somebody who knows a doctor who is “privately’’ very worried about the outbreak. Saying something like this serves no purpose beyond sowing fear.

Experts have said that COVID-19’s death rate (possibly as high as 3.4 percent globally compared with 0.1 percent for the flu in the United States) is almost surely skewed by the fact that it’s based only on the people who have shown symptoms of the virus. There’s a very good chance that more people have the disease but don’t even know it. That would significantly lower the death rate.

There’s a large segment of the population, sheltered in place, that doesn’t want to hear it. Those people are answering to a primal fear. That fear is inside all of us to varying degrees. And so we all take it in differently. Where I see overreaction, you see germs everywhere.

For the common good, it’s best that the games don’t go on for a while. If they do, it’s important that they go on without fans in attendance. It will be eerie — and, if you really think about it, nonsensical. Who is more likely to spread the coronavirus — two fans sitting next to each other or two college basketball players trading sweat?

But better safe than sorry. And better calm than panicky.

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