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Gobert's Coronavirus Diagnosis Could Scare Sports Fans Straight

So … now what?

Until Wednesday, a popular way to deal with the coronavirus was to pretend it didn’t exist. Maybe you understand the urge. That is what I’m doing with the XFL. Alas, pandemics don’t get offended and slink away; ignoring them is truly the worst thing you can do.

And so here we are, in a chaotic sports world inside a chaotic real world, looking around for anybody to lead us, making decisions too late–and making them largely based on wishes until facts shove those wishes aside. 

Think of how fast this is all moving. As of Wednesday morning, virtually every major sporting event in this country was scheduled to take place in front of fans. By Wednesday night, the NBA had suspended its season.

You wonder what sports can do? Maybe that’s it. Maybe sports can scare the proper hell out of everybody. Maybe they already did.

Maybe Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert really did contract or spread COVID-19 by touching a bunch of microphones, playfully mocking the virus. But maybe we’ll look back and realize he did us a favor.

This is what we keep getting wrong about COVID-19: Actions must be proactive, because if we wait to be reactive, we’ve already lost. So the question is not—and never should have been—whether it was safe to hold a sporting event. That was a good question after 9/11. It’s the wrong question now, because it led to the answer that every sports organization really wanted: Yes, it is safe.

The issue is not what happens when 20,000 people pack an arena. It’s what happens when they leave. The virus spreads, faster than we can fully appreciate, and dangerously to a large segment of the population. Maybe sports just taught us that. There was Rudy Gobert, laughing like a lot of us, and then, there he wasn’t. And then, there went the NBA season, at least for a little while, maybe for good.

This virus preys on a society that prides itself on its independence, its individualism, its ill-formed but passionately held ideas of freedom. If a country insists it won’t let coronavirus win like it won’t let terrorists win, that country loses. That’s the attitude we had until Wednesday: "I’m gonna live my life!" It’s one way to die.

Look at professional golf, which is probably the most blatantly capitalistic of all of our major sports and the one most closely associated with President Trump. The PGA Tour keeps acting as Trump did until Wednesday, taking the attitude that there is nothing to see here except a product to sell. For him, it was the stock market; for the Tour, it was the most important week on its calendar. Sure, packing 50,000 people onto a golf course is reckless and stupid, moreso with a fan base that skews older, but so what? It’s Players Championship week! Can’t let some virus detract from the fifth major! Late into Wednesday night, the tour was still incapable of seeing past Sawgrass’s island green. What a disgrace, and a dangerous one.

We need a break here: From fans in arenas, obviously, but maybe from sports at all. We need to limit large gatherings and devote real resources to getting millions of tests to people who need them—and again, this is about being proactive, not reactive, while we still can. We are blowing our chance to reasonably contain this, if we haven’t already. The wider this spreads, the more havoc it wreaks on our medical infrastructure. And that puts millions of people at risk.

Of all of America’s star athletes, Gobert should have known better. He grew up in France, which has been paralyzed by the outbreak. We may never know if his casual attitude caused him to get the virus. People were going to get it. Maybe he would have been one of them regardless. But the telling of his story has value, whether it’s accurate or not. The moral is that if you take this virus lightly, there is a good chance you’ll get it. If that scares people into (in)action, then maybe that’s for the best.

In one day, Gobert and Tom Hanks were revealed to have tested positive. Now we have faces on COVID-19.

Gobert is young enough and presumably healthy enough that he should recover. But we need people to be more alarmed than they have been. We need them to avoid large gatherings as much as they can, to take the hand-washing edicts seriously, to be on the lookout for any symptoms, to demand as many tests as we can muster, so we can get this under control.

Rudy Gobert tested positive, the NBA suspended its season, and the nation is shaking. You wonder what sports can do. Maybe that’s what.