Is it ethical for teams to allow fans back into sporting events?

Fan attendance at sporting events isn’t just an issue about health, it’s an issue about ethics, especially when it comes to prioritizing. (Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Gloves are popping. Bats are cracking. And gates are opening.

Spring training baseball is back. But should it be? And, more important, should fans be able to attend the games just when the end to a global pandemic seems within reach?

These aren’t just health questions. They’re ethical ones.

“If it’s safe for baseball teams to be practicing and to travel here from all sorts of other parts of the country and set up, then why isn’t it (safe) for the symphony orchestra to be playing? Or for all the museums to be open?” said Dr. Mary Feeney, a Lincoln Professor of Ethics in Public Affairs at Arizona State University.

“And then when we extend that to fans, it’s the same sort of question. How come it’s safe for fans to go to a baseball game, but not to go see the symphony or the opera? And what does that say about our priorities as a society?”

Feeney stressed that she is not an epidemiologist, but she is up to date on guidelines and best practices. She raised important questions about how masks would be enforced at sporting events and how teams and leagues will know if each pod is actually a domestic group, or just a group of friends ignoring guidelines. She also questioned what teams and leagues will do if a fan gets sick – or worse – due to their event, and how they will handle that responsibility.

“I think these are questions they have to ask themselves, because the state’s certainly not telling them what to do,” she said.

It is a dilemma for every professional sports league to weigh as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and teams attempt to balance the need to keep players, staff and fans safe against the need for revenue.
After various fanless approaches to sports in 2020, leagues are now slowly bringing their fans back to arenas and stadiums.

The NBA Phoenix Suns recently increased their maximum capacity to 3,000 fans per game at Phoenix Suns Arena, while the NHL Arizona Coyotes set a limit of at 3,450 for Gila River Arena. The approach taken by the 15 major league teams competing in Arizona’s Cactus League varies, but most are allowing between 1,000-2,000 to attend each game.

When spring training was abruptly canceled about a year ago, Arizona’s daily COVID-19 case tally was barely in double digits. Now, it’s above 1,100.

Differences between then and now are obvious.

Testing has increased, vaccinations are underway and much more is known about how the virus and its various strains spread. Additionally, teams are implementing various safety measures, including mask requirements and pod seating, allowing small groups of fans – ostensibly, family members – to sit together while safely distanced from other pods of people.

Nationwide, health experts continue to debate whether these safety standards are enough. It has been largely left up to the teams and leagues to determine how to proceed, especially in Arizona.
One common, non-economic argument in favor of allowing fans back into the stands is mental health. A January study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about four in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, compared to just one in 10 from January to June 2019. Some health officials have also noted an increase in suicide rates and drug overdoses, though a debate remains over the exact rates and whether the pandemic directly caused them.

From there, it is a logical step that allowing sports fans to do what they love – attend games – could improve mental health. But, at least for Arizona, Feeney isn’t buying it.

“Let’s be clear – people in Arizona have not been locked in their homes for the last 11 months,” she said. “We’ve been allowed to be outside during this entire pandemic. We have an abundance of outdoor opportunities in the Phoenix region. So I would guess that that sort of logic, that it’s somehow freeing people from an indoor lockdown, is a bit of a straw man.”

Feeney acknowledged that a return to any kind of “normal” could help both mental health and economic security. But, again, she isn’t convinced governments have their priorities in order. She argued opening schools and getting people back to work should come well before sports.

The Arizona Coyotes were one of the first NHL teams to allow fans. They said they have gone out of the way to make safety a priority but some still question if attending sporting events in general is the right thing.(Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey recently ordered the state’s public schools to be reopened to in-person learning, a controversial decision which occurred after Cronkite News interviewed Feeney. The move came nearly 10 months after pro sports were allowed to resume in the state, and six months after many school districts allowed fans to return to the stands for high school football games.

Having fans at spring training and other professional sporting events will bring some stadium jobs back, but the limits on attendance mean the job numbers are likely to be limited as well. And Feeney doesn’t believe the slight increase in revenues from opening the gates is worth the health risk to the rest of the population.

Indoor sports, such as basketball and hockey, could be even more problematic than Cactus League baseball. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outdoor activities are much safer, especially if the indoor environment is crowded, poorly ventilated or, possibly worst of all, in a cold environment.

Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told Cronkite News that NHL games may be particularly unsafe due to thermal inversion. Essentially, the presence of cooler air near the ice at the bottom of the arena and the warmer air near the top causes air to remain stagnant and not mix properly.

There are other factors to consider, too.

According to experts, various factors may make masks less effective during sporting events. Beyond the obvious questions of enforcement, it is also unknown whether six feet of distance is enough, even with masks, when fans are yelling and screaming for their team.

“If I’m angry and I shout at you, or if I’m at a sporting event and I shout, you can project particles for many feet, at least 12 feet, possibly even 18,” Sten Vermund, Dean and Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health at Yale University, told Cronkite News.

Feeney has seen some of these exact issues in action. A friend’s daughter was competing in a volleyball tournament in Georgia, so Feeney watched remotely. She saw large crowds of fans, players, coaches and officials, most wearing masks.

But when coaches and referees yelled at players, they often pulled their masks from their faces, likely spewing droplets.

Feeney is also concerned about the messaging sent by teams and leagues at every level, from youth to professional. Athletes are role models “whether they want to be or not,” she said. By running around, breathing hard without masks, they might be sending a dangerous message.

“I think professional sports teams are really in influential positions, and should be thinking carefully about how they roll these things out and how much they’re willing to put the general public at risk,” she said.

This issue of messaging took center stage at Super Bowl LV, which Feeney believes was handled well. She still isn’t on board with the number of fans attending in-person, but 7,500 of the 22,000 in attendance were vaccinated health care workers. The NFL provided each fan with personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. Additionally, the league implemented strict guidelines to regulate post-game celebrations held by the winning team.

But Tampa Bay fans still took to the streets (often maskless) after the Buccaneers won, and millions of others across the country held at-home Super Bowl parties with friends and family outside of their households. Data remains inconclusive as to whether the event caused any notable case spikes, either in Florida or nationwide.

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The NFL cannot control the actions of fans not in attendance, beyond recommending that they should stay home and stay safe through advertising and other public outreach. But the potential to turn the Super Bowl into the Super Spreader Bowl was a known possibility the NFL had to consider when deciding to hold the game in the first place.

To Feeney, that leads to murky territory. She considers the NFL, in a way, invincible. The league has survived many scandals, from concussions to domestic violence to political issues, usually without lasting consequences. It could likely deflect a Super Bowl-related COVID-19 outbreak just as easily.
So why spend time and marketing money trying to prevent it?

“I think that’s kind of a core question about capitalism and consumers in America,” Feeney said. “What is the motivation to do the ethical and the right thing, if you can get away with not doing it? If you can treat your workers poorly and still make billions? … It doesn’t seem like the NFL wins or loses when they take the moral high ground.”

The Super Bowl issue is compounded by the country’s lack of a reliable contact tracing system. Leagues and governments will never know the full extent of an event’s impact on public health. They might know if specific employees test positive, but beyond that, the best they can do is watch to see if local cases spike within the weeks that follow a major event.

Another initial ethical concern seems to have passed. When leagues such as MLB and the NBA were first restarting in the summer of 2020, they were doing so with advanced rapid testing systems for their players and staff. But, at the time, many members of the general public did not have access to the same reliable testing.

Now, with testing and PPE more widely available, proper allocation to athletes doesn’t seem to be an issue. A similar problem with vaccines is unlikely to arise, as no professional league has mandated vaccines or implied it would try to jump the line.

Fan attendance and organized sports in general during the pandemic are complex ethical issues, with fair points to be made on each side. But to Feeney, it’s simple: If she were running a league, fans would not be allowed back in the stands.

At least, not yet.

“I would say that we, as a leading organization, have an obligation to set an example for following current public health practice during a pandemic,” she said. “And then maybe set some targets. Like, as soon as schools can reopen safely and kids are back at school, then, you know, we’ll think about opening to fans.

“Frankly, I think it’s amazing they’re even playing. That their players are showing up and playing a sport, officials and staff and all those people are already at risk just by playing. So I wouldn’t want to expand that risk to fans as well.”

And it should be noted that Feeney doesn’t hate sports. Far from it, in fact. She grew up an athlete and still competes in a roller derby league – or, at least, she would. But she hasn’t even practiced in almost a year due to the pandemic.

She misses the sport, and others as well. But she also acknowledges that, ethically, public health needs to take priority over entertainment.

“I know that sports are so important for women and they create so many opportunities for a lot of people who come from sort of lower economic backgrounds,” she said. “But it’s also just the way we have dealt with sports during the pandemic. It’s shocking to me.”

Koki Riley contributed to this report.

Joshua Iversen JAW-shoo-uh EYE-vur-sun
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Iversen expects to graduate in May 2021 with degrees in sports journalism and business data analytics. Iversen, who has been a sports reporting intern at The Arizona Republic, is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.

Alina Nelson uh-LEE-nuh nEHl-suhn
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Alina Nelson is a sports journalist and photographer who expects to graduate in August 2021. Nelson, who has seven years of photography experience, is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.