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Poll: Majority Of Sports Fans Say Don't Play Indoors As Coronavirus Surges

Life has become more challenging, and potentially dangerous, as winter weather forces more people inside during the coronavirus pandemic.

And the concerns extend to the world of sports.

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll with the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College reveals 56% of American sports fans believe people should not be participating in indoor team sports such as basketball.

"That kind of surprised me," said Jane McManus, director of the Center for Sports Communication.

"I was expecting there to be less of a clear indication," McManus said, "of what fans were thinking about the effect the pandemic is having on sports."

But she said there are "clear majorities" when you ask fans not just about participation, but also the potential for the spread of the coronavirus. Of those, 56% also said they were either concerned or very concerned that playing indoor team sports will spread the virus in their local community.

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The telephone survey of 1,065 adults was conducted Dec. 1-6. In it, 603 respondents said they were sports fans.

Jose Gonzalez, 27, of Phoenix loves soccer. He's also a basketball fan and is "just starting to get into football." He's one of those in the majority – no indoor sports.

"For most people, it's not like pro sports where they get tested [regularly]," Gonzalez said. "Regular people like me, let's say I go out and have a five-on-five basketball game, and it's not like [anyone in that game] will get tested. They might have the virus without knowing it and then we'll catch it. That's why I think it's not safe."

Gonzalez is among the 57% of millennials (18-39) who think there shouldn't be indoor sports. The largest group who answered similarly was baby boomers (56-74) at 65%; the smallest was Generation X (40-55) at 52%. But all were majorities of the respondents in their groups.

Testing was key for Gonzalez, and for that reason, he thinks professional athletes are OK to play. The NBA begins a shortened regular season Dec. 22. Players, coaches and other key staff members are expected to get daily tests most of the time. But the league won't play in a pandemic-protected "bubble" as it did in the season that ended in October. No NBA players tested positive for the virus after they entered the bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., in July.

"You know how the NBA did its bubble," Gonzalez said. "It's not like that's going to happen for us normal people."

The poll found 40% of sports fans believe people should be allowed to play indoor team sports, including 58-year-old Karen Jeske from Portage, Wis.

But a big factor for her is personal responsibility among those playing indoors.

"If one of the people on the team had any doubts that they may have the COVID," Jeske said, "then I would think, as a decent human being, that they'd get themselves tested. If they had any doubts, then they shouldn't be there.

"I'm praying to God they'd all think that way."

But Jeske, a former certified nursing assistant who now works at a convenience store, worries about younger kids playing indoor sports.

"The thing that scares me with high school kids," she said, "is that not every parent is attentive or cares. There are decent parents out there who do consider their kids' health. But not every parent's like that. And that's what we have to worry about with high school or schoolchildren. Because really and truly it's a crapshoot."

Jeske is among just 18% of sports fans who say fans should be allowed to attend games for indoor team sports.

"I'd go if I thought I was in good health," said Jeske, who follows Wisconsin's pro sports teams, including the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, the NFL's Green Bay Packers and Major League Baseball's Milwaukee Brewers. "[But] if I had a stuffy nose or any of that stuff, I wouldn't be at that game."

While not a majority, 46% of sports fans said people should not be allowed to attend games for indoor team sports. It's the largest percentage of respondents to the poll question about fan attendance, and McManus said she thinks it represents, along with other survey results, a seriousness among fans that's noteworthy.

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It's especially so considering the narrative early in the pandemic that fans just wanted to have their sports, to watch and play, regardless of the potential dangers.

"What I see in this data," McManus said, "is that the majority of fans are very aware of the risks and realities that we're living in and how it's impacting sports. It appears to me they want people to be safe, they don't for the most part want fans in the stands, they don't want unnecessary travel for college athletes and they're aware that indoor sports could lead to some community spread."

McManus also was intrigued by the response to a poll question about whether there should be fans at the NFL's Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 7 at an outdoor stadium in Tampa, Fla.

The largest group of sports fan respondents — 49% — said no. Fans shouldn't attend the game.

"I kind of feel [the Super Bowl] is the most spectator-y of events, right?" McManus said. "That's the pure entertainment sports event, where you aren't balancing the need of someone to exercise or to be active. There's no positive benefit associated with that like, say, kids going out and playing basketball in a community where there's little spread.

"Think about the celebs, the parties, the money spent to get a ticket, who's in the luxury suites. There's a lot that goes along with the Super Bowl. So to ask whether or not fans should be allowed is kind of to ask whether or not life should continue as normal."

The 49%, McManus said, "says a lot about where we are in terms of what we want our normal to be. To me it shows that life is not normal and that people don't want the illusion of life as normal when we really are in a situation where people have to be careful."

McManus, a longtime sports writer, is currently a columnist at Deadspin. Earlier this year, several months into the pandemic, she tweeted that "sports are the result of a functioning society, not the precursor. If you like sports so much, you should be pushing for a better response to the virus, not the de facto ritual sacrifice of some number of pro athletes and their kin."

She thinks organized sports' response to the virus has, at times, been less than better. Even dishonest. Yes, pro leagues have created voluminous health and safety protocols. But they've also put cardboard fans in empty stadiums. Piped in fake crowd noise. In the survey results, McManus sees not only a seriousness about the pandemic but an unwillingness by sports fans "to be fooled."

"And I don't wonder," McManus said, "having looked at this poll and these numbers, if people wouldn't appreciate better modeling from sports, for what we're going through right now, and how we're supposed to behave in our actual lives, knowing what the risks are and knowing what's at stake."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.