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Coronavirus fallout shows how we have taken sports for granted

We’re seeing that our arenas and stadiums are no longer places of escape

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On the eve of college basketball’s most hallowed traditions, one of my worst nightmares has begun to materialize: restricted movement and an existence devoid of sports as we have come to know them.

Behold an emerging new reality: The Invisible Fan.

In reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA, major college conferences and the NBA, in one fell swoop, have canceled or postponed basketball games, changed the way media interacts with athletes and kept fans from watching tournament games in arenas.

On Wednesday, the NBA abruptly suspended its season after Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. On Thursday, the NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, joining at least 15 conferences who made the same decision that day.

Even before the cancellations, the NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS and colleges had instituted restrictive media policies that limited access to locker rooms.

Several conferences made plans for fanless arenas, leading to the remarkable spectacle of sponsor-driven, high-level tournament games that resembled scrimmages with only a select few in attendance.

No bands. No passion. No fans.

As the Big 12 tournament began here Wednesday, I spoke with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby about this unprecedented moment. Bowlsby became Big 12 commissioner in 2012 after serving as athletic director at Northern Iowa and the University of Iowa.

He has never witnessed anything like this: the transformation of conference tournaments, the reconfiguration of March Madness, all virtually overnight.

“At a personal level, it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “The remarkable thing about this is there’s no manual to tell you how to go through this process, you kind of play it by ear.”

Tipoff for St. John’s Red Storm and Creighton Bluejays basketball game at Madison Square Garden.

Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

Are we witnessing stopgap measures to contend with an insidious virus or is this the beginning of a new reality — in sports and beyond?

More than any social institution in our nation, the stadium and arena symbolize a freedom of movement, of congregation and a level of trust and security emblematic of our open society. These were safe spaces.

Today, the safe spaces are threatened in a way that neither I nor Bowlsby saw coming, and for good reasons. Our games have been resilient and have almost always gone on — through wars and through natural disasters. Nothing could shake our faith in the games, the stadiums and arenas in which they were played.

The 1989 World Series was interrupted by an earthquake that took lives and caused millions of dollars in damage, but the series was completed. Within two weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, the NFL and MLB went back to playing games with enthusiastic, and in some cases record-setting, crowds. Hurricane Katrina forced adjustments — the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans relocated — but the games went on.

Even mass shootings in public places and the ever-present threat of terrorism did not seem to deter fans from walking to stadiums.

This mysterious virus has turned sports — and our sense of security — inside out. When we come back, and I’m sure at some point we will, I don’t see how this will ever be the same.

“This one happens to be a virus,” Bowlsby said. “I’d be more troubled if we were going to have nobody in the stands due to civil unrest or a terrorist threat or some other sort of invasion that would change the way we live our lives.”

He added, “The American way is remarkable. Horatio Alger is alive and well.”

Or not so well – felled by a rapidly spreading virus with no known cure, no readily available vaccine. This virus has sobered March Madness and brought the NBA, NHL and MLB to an abrupt halt.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby announces to media that Big 12 tournament games at Sprint Center are canceled.

Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports

The arenas and the stadiums are no longer sanctuaries.

Bowlsby said the only experience that came close took place when he was a member of the NCAA men’s basketball committee. The U.S. was about to commence hostilities against Iraq. Some members of the committee floated the idea of canceling the tournament. The government then said absolutely not.

“The Department of Defense actually talked to us about the fact that there was going to be the initiation of hostilities and they were insistent that they wanted the basketball tournament to go on so there was as much normalcy as there could possibly be back at home when all this was taking place.”

The tournament represented normalcy then. Now it symbolizes fear and chaos. Will fanless tournaments become the new norm?

“It just isn’t the same,” Bowlsby said. “The energy in the building, the players feed off the energy in the building, even the home TV audience feeds off the crowd noise and the pandemonium that goes along with it, the uncertainty of outcomes and being part of that energy.”

Bowlsby made the call Wednesday that fans could attend Wednesday’s games. The board of directors decided to go to an empty arena for the duration of the tournament before deciding to call it off.

Like the NBA, the NCAA needed to consider calling off March Madness.

This will be a year with no national champion, possibly no NBA champion.

Where does this situation leave sports? Bowlsby called these games the last bastion of reality TV. Truth and unscripted drama where, for at least two hours, differences are put aside. “It’s such a part of our culture,” he said. “We’re a sports-crazy society. There’s nothing like it as a respite from your daily life.”

We have taken sports for granted, taken the freedom it illuminates for granted. Now we see how easily it can be snatched away, either in the blink of an eye or the rapid spread of an insidious virus.

Welcome to a disturbing new reality.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.