Lichtenstein: Why Pro Sports Must Succumb To Coronavirus Risks

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E
By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

Professional sports leagues rarely agree on anything. Gambling was bad, until it was good because it made them more money. And the press are pests.

That’s about it.

As a reporter who covers games, I have a vested interest in the joint statement from the four professional sports leagues (NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS) that closed media access to locker rooms due to the coronavirus risks, effective Tuesday.

However, as much as I’m disappointed that the directive limits every media member’s ability to pursue content for readers, viewers and listeners, it’s the right call. Until we have more information about a disease that is spreading exponentially, limiting the close contact between the press and athletes who are the multimillion dollar product seems logical.

But what about the 17,000 fans packed in tight at arenas like Barclays Center? It’s disturbing that the leagues haven’t yet determined that those health risks are just as real. 

While the Ivy League just canceled its conference basketball tournaments, all U.S. pro contests are going on as scheduled. The NHL Sharks will be affected by the Santa Clara County health ordinance that prohibits gatherings larger than 1,000 people, but their next home game isn’t until March 18. The NBA required teams to draw up contingency plans by Tuesday and has set up a conference call for Wednesday to discuss next steps, according to reports.

Fans enter the gates prior to the game between the New Jersey Devils and the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 4, 2019, at Prudential Center.Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Images

After I’ve talked with doctor friends who aren’t directly in the field of infectious diseases but know enough about what’s coming to advise me on this piece, the only appropriate next steps are to cancel all sporting events or play the games in empty venues.

Remember, we don’t really know how many people are carrying the virus. We only hear about “confirmed cases.” Children and healthy young adults might not experience any symptoms, or a slight cold. But they are still carriers who potentially could infect others they come into contact with, as COVID-19 is a respiratory-spread virus. And if the old and/or infirmed get it, the statistics I got were scary. 

We know why the leagues are hesitant to cease and desist — the almighty dollar sign. Between ticket sales and TV givebacks, we’re talking big money. 

I’m not sure if they’re overly concerned about lawsuits either, because they have to know that every night they play, they are exposed. It’s not hard to fathom a cruise ship-type scenario. Can you say, “Class action?” As attorney Brad Mitchell of Stevens & Lee told me, “There’s no way they have determined that they can’t have any liability.”

As for assumed risks, what is a ticketholder supposed to do? I attempted to obtain a refund for a New Jersey Devils game because my doctor advised me not to attend. Here’s the response from the Devils’ representative in an online chat: “As long as the game happens with paying fans in attendance, we will not be issuing refunds.”

Of course not.

That the leagues now have shown knowledge of the risks through their media locker room ban could actually work against them in a potential action.

“That’s what a plaintiffs lawyer would argue,” Mitchell said.

Maybe the U.S. pro sports leagues will come to their senses as Italy did. I still have hope that at some point, science will win out over greed.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.