The Show Must Go On: let sport resume—even without fans—for our health |

Doing nothing is not an option. But for millions of people around the world, this is what they are facing: nothing to do, nowhere to go. They get up every morning and face a void. It is unsustainable.

As the coronavirus spreads around the globe, lockdowns, shelters and other methods of isolation are necessary and inevitable. And government orders or suggestions should be adhered to. But this way of life, if it lasts for many months, will create an entirely different set of problems that, in many cases, could be just as pernicious—family break-ups, social disruption and even more depression than so many people were already experiencing even before the pandemic. This is a mental health issue that needs to be addressed. Anyone who has observed serious depression will know I am not being frivolous.

We need to be reminded that, for multiple millions, sport is an outlet, an escape and a passion. It provides a source of social discourse and discussion, an energizer for argument and debate in every pub, coffee house, barber shop and restaurant in the world.

Now there is nothing. There is no March Madness, no tennis at Indian Wells or Miami, no Masters at Augusta, no Spring Training, no one knows when Manchester City will play Arsenal or when David Beckham’s Inter-Miami MLS team will be able to make its home debut. There is nothing.

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And you know what will suffer? The one thing that we need to bolster and keep strong as the virus swirls around us: our immune system. Check any website, talk to any doctor and you will learn that the immune system is fueled by stimulus. In sports, that means the passion of an Lakers fan or Liverpool supporter desperate for their seasons to be completed so that their team can win the title. Or the Rafa fanatic waiting for the name Nadal to be engraved yet again on the marble slabs that hang on the walls of the Monte Carlo Country Club.

We know that, whatever happens to basketball, baseball or soccer, the latter hope is gone. The ATP Masters 1000 event at Monte Carlo has been scrapped for 2020 and the rest of the European clay-court season with it. The French Open will be played in September—we can only hope. Wimbledon? Who knows?

This dearth of something to look forward to, to cling to, to imagine and debate is dangerous. We know that families who suddenly have the kids at home all day are facing challenges. But what about the millions living alone, or with a spouse or partner where passion has died and interests have diverged? Old movies and World Series re-runs don’t hack it. There is no “What Happens Next?”—no stimulus. Frustration sets in and things can become worse.

This is where sport can play its role and, I would suggest, has a duty to do so. There is strong reluctance on the part of soccer authorities in Britain to terminate the Premier League season, and thank goodness for that. On a weekly basis for ten months of the year, it is the most watched sporting spectacle on earth. You cannot find a tapas bar on the Ramblas in Barcelona or a side street café in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam that doesn’t have Manchester United’s or Chelsea’s matches on its TVs.

It needs to resume as quickly as possible, even if that means playing in empty stadiums. Yes, I know it is a poor substitute for the real thing and that the players hate it. But, quite apart from easing the huge problem of untangling television contracts, it offers a partial solution—something is better than nothing. And for the fan locked into a small apartment in Sao Paulo, Brazil or San Antonio, Texas, that ‘something’ is huge. The game is back on TV, the excitement returns, the immune system gets pumped. It is better for your health.

This goes for professional tennis, too, and I would urge both the ATP and WTA to consider this before potentially cancelling further tournaments beyond June 7. With careful planning, they can be played without spectators. No fun? Ask a player if they would rather play a proper match and win ranking points or spend more hours on a practice court. This may be the new reality. Adapt.

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There should be no problem with social distancing if scheduling and rules about occupation of locker rooms and player lounges are put in place and enforced. With new rules brought in: Restrict each player to one coach or physio. No guest passes. No fan contact with people outside the stadium. All things no one wants to do but… all better than nothing. Of course, it would pose questions none of us have ever had to face before, but extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. Let’s not give up on the old show biz cry, “The Show Must Go On!”  

And let’s not fall for the all-or-nothing approach. We must hope and expect that, when the situation eases, a small number of spectators could be allowed in. It’s better to have 500 people watching a tennis match than none. The 500 could be tested for coronavirus at the gate, gaining entry only with a certificate. Right now the resources to do that may not be available, but in a few weeks, that may change. Drive-by tests are already happening so in two months that should be a possibility, an option. Explore; don’t give up.

Cliff Drysdale’s Tennis Camps did everything they could to keep things going and put extraordinary measures in place to ensure that tennis lessons continued until a close-down became inevitable. Pupils were not offered serving lessons because they were not allowed to touch a ball. That’s right, no ball touching, no hand touching. Balls were to be kicked into corners and collected by the pro. Restrictive? Sure. But would you rather be on court hitting backhands and forehands, or at home twiddling your thumbs? All sporting bodies should stretch their imaginations to find solutions.

For people who prefer art galleries or lectures on scientific data, sport may be of little interest. But nobody can deny that sport’s daily impact on our world is vast—it is the heart that pumps a myriad of dreams and drives soaring ambition. Even through thinner arteries, we must do all we can to ensure that it is not blocked off entirely. Doing nothing, and having nothing, should not be an option.

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