LeBron James meant well.
“I ain’t playing,” the Los Angeles Lakers star said after Friday’s game of any potential NBA games without fans because of coronavirus (COVID-19). “I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates. I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. If I show up to an arena and there are no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”
His fans-first mantra is what every professional sports league wants from the face of the league.
But hold on there, LeBron. Let’s take a more logical look at this. That mantra, well-meaning as it was, was also misguided in the face of the growing coronavirus outbreak.
Whether someone talked to James or James came to a much more reasoned conclusion is immaterial. James walked back his comments Tuesday.
“They say no one could actually come to the game if they decide to go to that point so I would be disappointed in that,” James told reporters in Los Angeles. “But at the same time you got to listen to the people that’s keeping a track on what’s going on. If they feel like it’s best for the safety of the players, the safety of the franchise, the safety of the league to mandate that, then we all listen to it.”
This is a public health crisis. NCAA conference tournaments have been canceled. Some states are recommending that indoor sporting events be held with just essential personnel and no fans. Colleges across the country are going to online classes for the rest of the semester. Other sporting events, such as X Games China, were canceled. Italy is playing games without fans. Experts have recommended social distancing.
“We certainly are past containment,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 2017 to 2019, told USA TODAY’s Editorial Board in a discussion about the COVID-19 outbreak. “We have to think about aggressive steps at mitigation. It’s impossible to avoid an epidemic here in the U.S. We do have the potential to limit the scope of the epidemic, but we need to be taking more aggressive steps.
“My concern now is we’re not taking aggressive enough steps at mitigation to prevent a broader epidemic. And so the risk is that we have the potential for tens of thousands of cases and not just thousands of cases.”
The prudent move is to listen to what experts are saying without panicking, and leagues, especially the NBA, which is in daily contact with the CDC and infectious disease experts.
On Monday, the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS took the drastic measure to close locker rooms to reporters for pregame and postgame media availability. All interviews at NBA arenas right now have a defined distance – at least six feet, per CDC recommendations – between reporters and interviewee.
And the NBA might be moving toward a point where games are played without fans. The NBA has sent memos to teams asking them to prepare for the possibility of playing games with just essential staff present – meaning no fans and possibly no reporters.
The NBA in an internal coronavirus memo sent Saturday instructed teams to have an arrangement with an infectious disease specialist, identify a facility that can conduct testing for COVID-19, create a plan to limit the number of team and arena staff who have close contact with players and have a process to distribute hand sanitizer to players and team staff.
The NBA and other leagues are doing what they think is best right now to prevent an outbreak on a team while still playing games as scheduled.
James has a significant voice. He says he didn’t know Friday that the NBA had taken preliminary steps to prepare for an unprecedented scenario.
It worked out for him. He told fans how much they mean to him and then he made the prudent comments.
Anyway, James wasn’t going to miss any games because of this, not with so much at stake for him and the Lakers, who currently hold the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference just weeks from the start of the playoffs.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter.