LeBron James isn't going to like this, but shut 'em down.
Empty the arenas. Clear the ballparks. Drain the rinks.
The rest of the world is acting aggressively to slow the spread of the coronavirus before it becomes a pandemic that overwhelms global testing and treatment capabilities. U.S. leagues should follow suit, absorbing short-term pain in the interests of the long-term public good.
James, the Lakers star and MVP candidate, has already declared he's not interested in playing without fans, and it's an understandable sentiment. They're called spectator sports for a reason, after all.
But the response to coronavirus is a matter of public safety, and the window to act is rapidly closing.
The NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS took a microscopic step in this direction by banning reporters from locker rooms and clubhouses, as if those 20-50 media members pose a greater threat to the leagues' players than, say, the 20,000-50,000 fans packing their facilities. It's akin to providing the Andrea Doria with one sparkling new bailing thimble as it sinks off the coast of Nantucket.
A cynic might wonder if leagues are acting opportunistically, with the goal of cementing these bans in perpetuity, but this cynic will suppress those suspicions for the time being in the interests of the greater good.
And this is about the greater good.
The World Health Organization believes that, unlike the seasonal flu, COVID-19 can potentially be contained (plenty of experts disagree). Large swaths of China, Italy, and Korea have been effectively shut down, and draconian measures enacted in Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, have dropped the number of cases from a high of 3,000 a day in February to about 200 now.
Unlike authoritarian China, however, the United States can't quarantine 15 million people and make them order their food online. There are limits to what we can demand of our population in a democracy.
Giving up our games for a few weeks doesn't cross that line, however. Skipping a Red Sox matinee or watching the Bruins at home instead of in person isn't an overreach. It's common sense, especially in places like Seattle, where the sickness is spreading; about 40 cases have been diagnosed in Boston.
It's hard to imagine every ballpark and arena in America being fitted with padlocks until the threat has been reduced, but the alternative — sporting events as mass incubators — strikes me as far worse. The product will suffer in the short term, especially as it's played in eerie silence, but that's a small price to pay.
As a first step, teams in affected areas should be proactive about closing their doors.
We're going to hear a lot about "social distancing" in the next few months, because it's our first line of defense against the spread of disease. The more people packed together, the greater the odds of transmission. If you didn't know that spit travels six feet in the course of regular conversation with someone who's coughing, you do now. Sorry.
Harvard and Amherst have already moved classes online and told students not to return from spring break. The Ivy League will not hold a conference basketball tournament. Apple employees are working from home. Boston canceled its traditional St. Patrick's Day parade and Austin its massive South by Southwest music festival. Other schools, businesses, and events will undoubtedly follow suit.
"What's the big deal?" you might ask, perhaps spurred by a certain hyperactive Twitter account with roughly 75 million followers and a vested interest in wishing this entire ordeal away. "More people die of the flu! The mortality rate is only 1 percent! I'll be fine!"
You probably will be, but this isn't about you. It's about our older, higher-risk populations. Every infection a healthy 30-something beats with little more than a cold is an opportunity to pass the sickness to a more vulnerable community. Because this virus is new, no one is immune, and a vaccine might be two years away.
We live in a peculiar political age where a significant chunk of the population feels a knee-jerk desire to scoff at clearly established dangers to our health and safety with know-nothing denialism, be it guns, climate, or illness. Some of them even stare directly into eclipses, giving new meaning to the lyric, "blinded me with science."
There's no wishing away coronavirus, though. We're slipping from the containment phase of this epidemic to the mitigation one, and if leagues really want to do their part, they'll start telling their fans to stay home.