If the quality of the game is unchanged (or even better) without fans there to scream at the coaches, officials and players, is that behavior really necessary when the games resume?

The 2020 New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) State Basketball Championships were able to conclude last March, crowning 10 boys’ and girls’ state champions. The first two days of the tournament were just like any other — kids playing, coaches coaching, officials officiating and fans cheering and screaming.

If the quality of the game
is unchanged (or even
better) without fans
there to scream at the
coaches, officials and
players, is that behavior
really necessary when the
games resume?

Then, it happened.

The governor and the state department of education started putting a halt to athletic competition throughout the state. The Centers for Disease Control began issuing advisories and making recommendations as to public gatherings in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The questions and rumors began flying around the games going on that second day. Was the season over? What would the NMAA do?

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Well, the games went on. Upon directives from the state and the CDC, we allowed 100 people in the facility to continue the games and crown champions. Those 100 people included the two teams playing and the two teams for the next game, the referees and essential tournament staff. No fans. Limited media. Alternate referees were sent home (so we kept our fingers crossed that none of the referees would get injured).

The first game on that third day was surreal. I walked with the officiating crew (incidentally, only two officials, as one was stuck in traffic and we had sent the alternates home) down the ramp and the only noises that could be heard were the HVAC unit and the squeaking of sneakers on the basketball court. No player introductions. No national anthem. We all stood there, looking at one another, wondering how to start a game without the fanfare that normally precedes it. I looked at the crew chief and said, “Let’s go.” (For those of you wondering, the third official did show up at the start of the second quarter.)

The game began and the lack of fans did not bother anyone. After the opening tip, it was just basketball. The kids on the floor played with the same heart and intensity as if there were 14,000 fans in the stands at University of New Mexico Arena. Then, the first whistle blew and … nothing happened. The referee went to the table, reported and we played on. The same thing happened over and over for three days. Coaches were coaching their players. Players were listening to their coaches. Referees were calling fouls and violations. Everyone was having fun and enjoying the sanctity and purity that we once knew and loved about high school sports.

Throughout the games, officials would make a call and if coaches had a question about it, they asked — calmly and respectfully. In huddles during timeouts, coaches just talked to their players, without raised voices. The behavior of coaches on the sidelines from Thursday through Saturday was in stark contrast to what we witnessed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Perhaps they did not feel the need to be overly emotional for the benefit of their fans.

Officials were more focused on the task at hand (the 10 kids on the floor) instead of coaches out of their boxes and the unruly fans deriding them from the stands. They were able to blow the whistle, and effectively communicate with coaches, players, partners and the table crew. You could routinely see during the last three days of the tournament coaches and officials smiling and laughing, players enjoying basketball as the sport they have loved since they were little and everyone truly focusing on the sport they love. While the absence of fans was sad for the kids, it gave us all perspective about the negatives that sometimes come with the cheers and jeers of spectators during games.

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My hope is the absence of sport throughout the world gives us all a moment to gain perspective and do a “gut check” as to the kind of fans we are at contests. If the quality of the game is unchanged (or even better) without fans there to scream at the coaches, officials and players, is that behavior really necessary when the games resume?

What we learned that week in March, among many lessons, is the concept of “essential personnel.” For a game to go on in any sport, we need a couple of teams with their coaches, someone to adjudicate the contest and someone to keep score. Everything beyond that is just extra. If we take out teams, coaches or officials, the games cease to exist. What we learned that week was, in the end, the game does not really need fans to exist. It is the fans who desperately need the sports they love.

Dana Pappas is the commissioner of officials/deputy director for the New Mexico Activities Association.

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