On February 19th, the NCAA announced that not only would March Madness continue as planned, but fans would also be allowed to watch in person at 25% capacity. This comes as sports leagues across the country are returning to normal. For instance, the Super Bowl attracted around 22,000 fans in person. The usual suspects have criticized the NCAA for “ignoring the science” surrounding COVID. After all, the games will attract thousands of people from around the country, and it is naive to pretend that we can pack thousands of people into relatively close proximity without some risk from COVID or from other factors. We certainly need to weigh the pros and cons of this activity. The problem is that it is not clear that those who are criticizing the NCAA have done the proper risk/benefit analysis.
One quote from John Swartzberg, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, sums this up perfectly. As he said to the New York Times, “I can’t see any good reason to [have fans at March Madness games], and I can see a lot of bad reasons to do that.” (Emphasis added.) The interesting part of this statement is that Dr. Swartzberg didn’t say that the reasons against having fans in the stands outweigh the reasons for, but that there are no reasons for having fans in attendance in the first place. I’m sure that all of our readers who have ever enjoyed the thrill that can only come from cheering on your team in person, surrounded by a crowd of like-minded fans, can think of at least one good reason for in-person sporting events.
Lest you think I am cherry-picking that quote, all of the other epidemiologists who spoke to The Times against fans attending games in person echoed this sentiment. Dr. Bachynski, for instance, said in-person fans created a “much higher level of risk, and to what benefit?” Dr. Swartzberg later speculated on the NCAA’s reasoning, saying he “can understand the argument for parents or siblings of the players to attend. But to open it up to as much as 25% of capacity? The only reason to do that is not player safety or family safety — it’s to sell tickets.” Yes, the only reason that one could ever want to see a sporting event in person is that you are either the family of someone playing or so that you can give ticket revenue to the event organizers.
The flaw in the analysis of these scientists is obvious to anyone who has ever enjoyed a sporting event in person. Going to a sporting event does not need to be justified; it is, for many people, an enjoyable event that both brings them happiness and serves as a way to connect with family, friends, and fellow fans. Anything that makes us happy is an end itself, and we should be allowed to fully enjoy it unless there is some strong reason to limit or avoid it. If going to a March Madness game is something that you want to do, then that alone is a valid reason for allowing you to go to one.
But, of course, in theory, there are good reasons to oppose in-person sports games. Bringing people from around the country and putting them in close proximity, both in the basketball arena and in the surrounding bars and hotels, may lead to a spike in cases; and a spike in cases must be weighed against the utility created by allowing people to do the things that they enjoy. While I personally think the benefit is worth the cost, reasonable people can disagree, or, better yet, can agree to let people decide for themselves whether the benefit of in-person games outweigh the risks.
The problem with these epidemiologists is that they do not even do a risk/benefit analysis, and the reason why they do not is fairly interesting. It is not exactly news that the sort of people who become professors at prestigious universities in exoteric sciences are not the sort of people who would paint their faces on game day, and there is a fascinating connection between social class and sports involvement. The fact that these people are not sports fans is perfectly fine, and I will add that columnists for political publications are not exactly known for our love of sports either — I am often mystified by the devotion of certain fans to their sports teams myself. The problem lies with people trying to impose their personal preferences, and their personal risk calculuses, on everyone else.
There is a natural psychological pheromone in which humans tend to favor our own personal, subjective preferences over those of other people— particularly those who are different from them. This is perfectly natural, but it becomes problematic when the people in charge of society share these values with each other, but not with everyone else, and try to impose their views on other people. For example, the reason why bars were reopened before schools is that the people making these decisions tend to be the sort of people, childless adults, who care more about bars than schools; and a similar dynamic can be seen with the hypocritical reactions among epidemiologists to the anti-lockdown protests and the George Floyd protests that happened last summer.
Sports are an incredibly important part of our shared American identity. They bring us together even when things like ideology, politics, and civil unrest divide us. Sports are also a way of celebrating the hard work and talent of the athletes who have spent their lives training to compete. Of course, it is perfectly fine that not everyone enjoys sports. However, if our pluralistic society is to survive, we all, and especially the political class who make these decisions, need to allow people to decide for themselves what brings them utility and not presume to impose our own values on them.