Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz’s all-star center and defensive whiz with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, tested positive for the virus, which shut down the NBA “until further notice” and provided a powerful anecdote to combat the notion that all this fuss is alarmist nonsense. Gobert was last seen making light of the global pandemic by touching microphones and playfully spreading his germs after a media session. That’s his personality. He was just trying to lighten the mood. Right now, however, he has become an example of the dangers of the arrogance and nonchalance still too prevalent in society.
We often celebrate the diversion of sports and seek that opportunity to escape. We can get overly protective of this diversion, acting as if it is our right and growing angry whenever anything disturbs the obsession. But these games aren’t always a magic safe place in which real life doesn’t exist. They don’t just divert. They exemplify society. They magnify it. They amplify it. Because we’re so intensely interested, they have the power to send messages that large portions of the population might not receive otherwise, and they can do it in a more convincing manner.
In the United States, the current hope should be that sports can make people wake up and live with appropriate concern and diligence. While there’s nothing wrong with being grumpy that the coronavirus is interrupting the sports schedule, we must also think about it this way: Athletics are ubiquitous — always on, always entertaining, something you can set your clock to — and when they’re not, we should be more concerned than frustrated. To disrupt sports, it takes great tragedy, war or crisis. It’s unreasonable for anyone to deny that this is one of those frightening times.
“This is an unprecedented public health situation, and we can’t wait until we’re in the middle of it to slow it down,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said during a Wednesday news conference. “We’ve got to get ahead of the curve. One main defense is to reduce the interaction of people in our lives.”
I live in Seattle, 12 miles from Kirkland, Wash., which has been dubbed the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus. It feels as if we reside in America’s future unless it becomes proactive about preventing the spread of the contagious covid-19. Five days ago, Washington state had just more than 100 confirmed cases of the virus. That number rose to 366 on Wednesday. There were 17 deaths five days ago. The latest total is 29.
Earlier this week, a model predicting the spread of the virus and its impact on local King and Snohomish counties was released here. The research was done by an acclaimed trio of researchers: the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue, Wash. Their study anticipates that, if the area can’t slow the spread of the virus, there would be 25,000 infected citizens and 400 deaths by April 7, which is less than a month from now. This is why Inslee and governors across the country are using their powers to ban large events and promote social distancing.
Overblown? That’s a common reaction from people who just want us to stop being scared and keep living. American pride can trick us into believing we are too mighty to suffer the way China or Italy has. But we’re playing from behind. If we don’t get proactive, there’s ample evidence the virus will spread in devastating ways.
Jeffrey S. Duchin, the chief health officer for Seattle and King County, provided a grim analogy that should create urgency.
“This large-scale outbreak will go on for weeks and likely for months,” he said. “We expect this will be a very difficult time. It’s similar to what you might think of as an infectious-disease equivalent of a major earthquake that’s going to shake us for weeks and weeks.”
If Duchin isn’t famous enough for you, listen to TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley, whose employer was set to televise the NCAA men’s tournament, calling for March Madness to be shut down. Or listen to North Carolina Coach Roy Williams try to talk through it.
“This is the most serious problem that I can remember in our country that there’s no answer for,” the 69-year-old coach said after the Tar Heels were eliminated from the ACC tournament Wednesday night.
“This is the possibility of people getting very sick and dying, and it’s something that in my mind is more serious than anything I can remember, and I’m way older than most of you guys. I remember when I was little that people were preparing places for you to go and hide underground because of nuclear weapons, and that was not a very comfortable time, and I was really little. But I know my mom was really, really scared.
“But this is something that you can’t see. … We have very intelligent scientists and doctors and people that are in charge of this kind of thing, and the American people have been very resilient over the years, and I think we’ll come out of this thing, but this is a scary time period.”
The sports world is beginning to respond appropriately to the concern. It took too much time, however. Despite all the factors involved — including the loss of tens of millions of dollars per team — I’m sure NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wishes his league could have made a decision before Gobert and Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell tested positive and forced a hiatus. And this isn’t a vacation. Now comes the complicated process of retracing Gobert’s steps and figuring out if the virus spread over about a two-week period, which will involve closely monitoring and requesting self-quarantine of the players and staffs of all of the Jazz’s recent opponents and all of those opponents’ opponents. Most of the league will be affected for several days, at least.
The end of this NBA season was shaping up to be a good one, but now we must pause. It’s appropriate. We can argue about whether to play or chill with any league around the world right now, and we can lament the thrills we’re going to miss. But consider what we’re gaining: awareness.
Getting more people to take the coronavirus seriously is a very good thing, an essential thing, a challenging thing to do when people can escape mindlessly. Moving forward, sports leagues must use their platforms and become leaders in changing indifferent attitudes. That should include Olympic organizers, too. And they must do so with an unprecedented level of uniformity.
During the news conference, Inslee pulled out his cellphone and read a text message from a woman in Italy for emphasis.
“Stop saying it’s just flu or severe flu,” Inslee read. “Please come and see our intensive care units in northern Italy. People can’t breathe, and we don’t have anywhere to put them. You [expletive] idiots.”
It doesn’t have to get to such a panicked point here, but plenty of experts are pleading for immediate action. In the sports world, we shouldn’t be focused merely on the roll call of who’s playing and what the emotional and financial costs will be. There’s also the civic responsibility to spread a beneficial message to people who might need a better perspective.
That’s the hidden power of sports, a power reserved for the most critical issues and moments. If a global health crisis doesn’t provide the inspiration to be more than a money-printing diversion, then these games aren’t worthy of all the attention.