In A World Still Dealing With COVID-19, Sports Shouldn’t Return Without Fans

Games played in empty areas and stadiums will only serve to remind everyone of the COVID-19 devastation to our sports culture.

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I, like most everyone else in New England, have lived and breathed with athletic events and games. After all, they haven’t been just a source of entertainment and endless thrills for me, they’ve been my profession and provided a fulfilling living for myself and my family.

But now is not the time to bring back games.

I am tired, like most people, of watching re-runs of great games and moments in the last 100 years of American sports history. I miss the games, badly.

But I don’t want to see a single pass, run, pitch, swing, shot on goal, jump shot or corner kick in an empty stadium.

Why?

No, it’s not because I’m against the diversion it could provide or the programming it would most certainly offer desperate sports owners and television networks. It’s also not because I want to see athletes who have trained their whole lives to perform on the greatest stage deprived of competition.

It’s simply because before we can even imagine a world close to normalcy, we have to get the rest of society up to speed, physically, emotionally, mentally and economically.

Sports has always provided us a release and an escape from “real-world” problems and issues. Watching athletes perform in empty arenas won’t provide us an escape. It will only re-enforce the bizarre crisis in which we all find ourselves.

Sports is filled with joy, passion, desire, intensity, drama, heartbreak and the thrill of the crowd. Take away the fans, and you’re playing glorified scrimmages, whether they’re preseason, regular season or playoffs. In the NHL, there has been some consideration to head straight to playoffs after the players get up to proper conditioning and start a modified Stanley Cup playoff run in July or August in North Dakota or New Hampshire in empty arenas.

“Yeah, we thought about that,” Bruins center Charlie Coyle told me Wednesday in a conference call. “Teammates are friends and it’s just very bizarre to think about. Playing a meaningful game with no fans in there knowing it’s almost like a practice atmosphere. I don’t know what it would be like.

“I’ve never played in NHL game (with) no one there. It’s it just kind of be a new experience if that’s what it has to come down to then. Yeah, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

TD Garden before a playoff game in 2019. (Mike Petraglia)

Coyle, one of the classiest men in the Bruins’ room, almost sounds like he’s apologizing for the fact that games are likely going to played without the fans.

“Perfect scenario would be to have our fans in there and cheering us on because we love playing in front of these guys and playing here. They bring so much to our game, our team and just the atmosphere,” he added.

The NBA is considering places like Las Vegas and MLB is looking at Arizona or Florida or both in a newly constructed competitive format that would do away with the leagues for one year. But again, no fans allowed.

What’s more, MLB is considering a quarantine for all 30 teams in their hotels until it’s time to play games and then it’s back inside the bubble. Four or five months of seeing no family or friends. Literally, that is like playing the games on another planet. I have absolutely zero interest in finding out the likely emotional toll that would take on all players, coaches and team executives involved.

And that applies to the NHL, NBA, NHL and MLS.

We all miss sports. I get it. But understand what the essence of sports is to these athletes and coaches. It’s about passion and performance and playing the game you grew up with, playing with teammates you learned to respect and enjoy, in front of fans who appreciate everything you do.

Are we really that desperate to watch these games like they’re being played on Mars? I’ve heard all the jokes. “Yeah, these games would be great for the Marlins and Rays because they always play in front of no one as it is.” Sure, that’s hilarious. They’re also not being tested every day and using up medical resources when the rest of society badly needs.

Imagine for a moment, Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals when the Bruins beat the Lightning in one of the greatest hockey games of the last 20 years. It was a 1-0 thriller won by the Bruins on home ice with a crowd at a fever pitch the entire game.

“Especially playoff time, there’s nothing like it,” Coyle said. “It just wouldn’t be the same at all. I hope things can work out and you can get everyone go back to being normal and living their normal lives and going to sporting events and different events and big crowds but if that’s what it comes down to then we have to adjust accordingly.

“We’ll definitely miss those guys and it will that all kind of will lose a part of our atmosphere and in our team.”

Charlie Coyle scores for the Bruins at TD Garden in the 2019 playoffs.

Think back to the countless close games Tom Brady won at Gillette Stadium over the last 20, including his last win in a Patriots uniform, the heart-pounding win over the Bills to clinch the AFC East last December, or the come-from-behind playoff wins over the Ravens in 2014 and the Jaguars in 2017.

How about the win the Patriots came up with against the Chiefs in a hostile environment in 2018 in the AFC Championship? The crowd at Arrowhead inspired the Chiefs to comeback against the Patriots, only to have Tom Brady rescue the game in overtime and send them to Super Bowl LIII.

During their remarkable run since 2004, the Red Sox have also won countless games because they were playing at Fenway Park. Games 4 and 5 of the ’04 ALCS, Games 6 and 7 of the 2007 ALCS, Games 2 and 6 of the 2013 ALCS against the Tigers. The clinching Game 6 of the 2013 World Series.

How about all those Celtics games played in front of a delirious TD Garden crowd, like Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Semifinal against LeBron and the Cavs? Imagine Paul Pierce and LeBron in an empty arena? The crowd is what made that game so incredible. Game 6 against the Lakers in 2008. The Celtics comeback against the Nets in 2002.

Interim Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke admitted in his video call Tuesday that what scares him is that if one person in all of MLB tests positive during this fan-less period, then what? The assumption is you shut everything down again because who knows how many people that one person may have infected.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and advisor to President Trump’s COVID-19 panel, says the only way to return to sports is through empty buildings.

“There’s a way of doing that,” he said of jump-starting sports. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. … Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

No thanks. As much as President Trump rightly says, “we have to get our sports back (because) I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old,” the part he leaves out is that sports have to return the right way. Sports is about the intense competition and the fans. Sports without fans are glorified practices and scrimmages. Period.

Sports needs to return in a climate that is ready for them to return, not because owners and TV networks need the programming.

Sports has been my life. I don’t write these words lightly. I very badly want to see games again. I just don’t want them to come before we, as a society, can enjoy them.