As the world responds to COVID-19/Coronavirus, the world of professional and amateur sports is responding as well. The virus had already has begun impacting the sports world and its impact with likely increase. The spread of the virus throughout the United States has led to growing concerns about sporting games and events.  As a result, we will be seeing a very unique March Madness tournament – one without fans present.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has announced that only essential staff and limited family will be permitted to attend tournament games. This announcement came after the news that, the “First Four” NCAA tournament games, which are to be played in Dayton, Ohio, and the first and second round tournament games in Cleveland, Ohio, would be played without spectators. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine had provided that he would be issuing an executive order that these games would be played without spectators, but media would be permitted to be present.

There have been particular concerns in the world of college sports because Division II and III college basketball conference tournament play has begun, and Division I conference tournament play and the NCAA tournament are quickly approaching. The NCAA assembled a Coronavirus Advisory Panel, led by NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline. The panel is working with local, state, and federal authorities to better understand COVID-19. Initially, the NCAA was considering limiting locations that tournament games would be played and having games without public attendance but was not recommending cancellation or public spacing of athletic and related events. However, following Governor Dewine’s announcement, the NCAA limited fan attendance.

Member schools and conferences, which have the power to make their own decisions when it comes to regular season and conference tournament games, were already taking a more cautionary approach. This past weekend Johns Hopkins University prohibited spectators from attending the men’s Division III conference tournament games after a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Maryland. The Ivy League has gone a step further and recently announced it is cancelling the league’s men’s and women’s conference tournament games, as well as all out of season practices and games. Other measures include the Big East Conference limiting locker room access to only athletes, coaches, and essential team personnel, and the Atlantic 10 Conference suspending handshakes during its conference tournament.

The professional sports world is also feeling the effects, as the BNP Paribus Open at Indian Wells was canceled. Initially preventive measures were contemplated including, ball boys and girls wearing gloves and not touching players’ towels, as well as the installation of over 250 hand-sanitizing stations. However, after a local case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Coachella Valley, the tournament announced it was too great a risk to public health to hold an event of its size.

The four major sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS) have made major changes to their media policy in response to the virus. A joint statement from the leagues provided that “team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice.” Media access will now be limited to designated locations outside of these areas.  Additionally, after San Francisco’s Public Health Office issued an order prohibiting events with more than 1,000 people attending, the Golden State Warriors announced the team will be playing its Thursday night game against the Brooklyn Nets without fans. Many states and localities have issued similar recommendations. The NBA had previously asked its teams to prepare contingency plans for spectators being banned from games, and Lebron James had stated that he would not play without fans in attendance.

Moreover, as this situation continues to develop, it is likely that state and local measures prohibiting or limiting large public gatherings will continue, which will substantially impact the sports world. Although games may continue without spectators, other sports related events will likely be canceled to comply with bans on large public gatherings.

Jackson Lewis’ Collegiate and Professional Sports Group will continue to monitor developments of the COVID-19 and its impact on sports institutions and organizations, and our attorneys are available to assist with related questions and concerns. Jackson Lewis has established a dedicated “Coronavirus” team that is continually assessing risks, preparing communications, and providing practical advice on dealing with this rapidly evolving situation.

For more information related to Coronavirus in education, attend our live webinar Friday March 13, 2020: Confronting Coronavirus/COVID-19 in Education: A Discussion of Best Practices with Live Q&A.

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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.