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Canceling sports over coronavirus sends an important message to the world

Sports are both frivolous and powerful in the time of a pandemic.

Photo of fans who gathered outside of Valencia’s champions league match, which was played in an empty stadium due to coronavirus Photo by JOSE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images

Atalanta and Valencia played the second leg of their Champions League tie in an empty stadium due to the threat of the coronavirus. The lack of fans and atmosphere made it a bizarre scene.

When Atalanta won a penalty in the first few minutes, I expected to hear Valencia fans booing. Instead, everything was quiet. I could hear the players arguing, and the referee telling the goalkeeper to stay on the line before the penalty kick. The game ended, 4-3, in favor of Atalanta, it was a goalfest, yet the biggest reactions to several incredible moments was light applause and support from the players and technical staff on the benches. It felt like watching the last stragglers of an abandoned world compete in a game of football.

Before the match had even taken place, Italy went into complete lockdown, which included suspending its sporting leagues. A day after the match, Spain suspended football in the country at all levels. And yet during the match, Valencia fans still came out to support their team outside the stadium.

That a Champions League match was played in the midst of a pandemic is concerning. But the fact fans gathered outside the stadium en masse made the decision not to postpone the game feel particularly irresponsible. Fans showed up outside the gates for a shuttered game between PSG and Dortmund, too, and afterwards one of PSG’s players went out to celebrate with them.

The decision to play those games behind closed doors raised a difficult question about the role of sports in a times of human crisis. Sports can be a source of comfort and inspiration. In his article about how the virus has interrupted even the most banal parts of everyday life, The Ringer’s Brian Phillips wrote that the stories sports help us tell, about community and emotion, are the ones we need right now:

The kind of collective dramatic engagement that sport offers, the way it lets you feel something intensely at the same time as thousands of other people, and without that thing being purely nationalistic or violent (though obviously, it’s vulnerable to those forces) — we need that. We need stories we can tell, and at the moment, we’re short on good sources for them.

I don’t know what it says about us — us meaning humans — but at any given time, sport is likely to be the dumbest thing happening in society and a powerful emblem of why we have society in the first place.

Phillips is right that the world could use a way to engage collectively that isn’t terrifying or violent. The problem is, the extreme emotional connection usually championed as a positive in football, and sports in general, has suddenly become a health risk.

I think sometimes the sports world forgets how inconsequential it actually is. It’s easy to get wrapped up in its power. Perseverance is one of sports’ great virtues, but right now, playing games in the midst of a crisis only illustrates the prerogatives of leaders, who are willing to put their bottom line over the public’s health. We do need stories of community and engagement, but the most important story sports can tell right now is that it cares about the health of those who enjoy it. Defiance in the face of a public health crisis isn’t perseverance, it’s stupidity.

It has been obvious for some time now, as countries scramble and struggle to impede the coronavirus, that sports have to come to a stop. Spectator sports conflict with our best measures to stop viruses from spreading. Gathering thousands of people in close confines is the last thing needed when experts are telling individuals to stay away from public spaces, work from home, and be more sensible about hygiene.

This coronavirus has exposed fractures in society, and how poorly we have built our world for collective health and wellbeing. Countries are struggling to obtain necessary testing kits. Our institutions for combating disease are overwhelmed and underfunded. The gig economy means low wage workers can’t afford to take off the time they need for recovery or to avoid infection. Many people can’t afford healthcare. And all of this added stress is happening as leaders are busy pushing misinformation, leaving their citizens see-sawing between feelings of dull ignorance and panic.

Football and other sports, as big-money businesses, are now in the middle of a conflict between reason and money. Financial and television obligations demand games be played. Some leagues have assumed responsibility. The NBA was dallying between playing in empty stadiums or continuing as normal, until one of the players tested positive for the virus and the season was officially suspended.

Other leagues are still dragging their feet. The Premier League still hasn’t announced that play will be suspended, even as players are testing positive. UEFA, as of now, only has a meeting scheduled to decide what to do about the Champions League and Euro 2020, and will allow Europa League games to be played in the meantime. The NCAA will seemingly continue with March Madness, except with no fans allowed. And NASCAR is only making procedural changes so far.

These half measures are not be enough. All these actions do is illustrate the struggle between the powerful and dumb sides of sports that Phillips described. Everyone involved seems to know the risk of infection is too great to host events properly, yet they are resisting the sensible decision. The longer this losing battle draws out, the more people will be put at risk, and the more sports will become a saboteur to the public good.

Sports have incredible influence over society and people. They can be spaces to escape, to connect to other human beings, or to experience the profound emotion of watching world class athletes accomplish impossible feats. Sports are a powerful storytelling machine. But they are also frivolous. Sports don’t matter in the grand scheme. And saying that doesn’t conflict with their power.

Right now, the most important story the sports world can tell is about its smallness in the face of a global crisis. Rather than trying to defy a pandemic, and put lives at risk, sports need to step back. They need to show that human life is more valuable than the money to be made. Before sports can once again be a great place to tell human stories, they must make sure those humans are foremost safe.