Coronavirus’ impact on sports has been swift and far-reaching — just when we need sports the most
These are strange, unpredictable and confusing days, aren’t they? Writing a sports column during a period when sports falls far below the urgency of an escalating pandemic — and at a time when sports events in general may be few and far between — feels a little odd.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, things are going to be different for a while. Depending on where you live and work, you are surely feeling it already.
So much is happening that nothing feels shocking anymore. The stock market took a historic tumble. Travel between Europe and the United States was curtailed. And the world of sports braced itself for changes that would, at any other time, be unthinkably radical, yet now form the only sensible course of action.
I never thought I would type these words: the NBA season has been suspended. Or these: the NCAA tournament will be played behind closed doors (at the moment I initially wrote this, although we now know that won’t be the case). These too: there is a chance that the European soccer season, including the Champions League, is called off, and that the Olympic Games might be cancelled.
Following the quarantine imposed on players of Juventus and Real Madrid, the following #UCL matches will not take place as scheduled.
🏴 Manchester City – Real Madrid 🇪🇸
🇮🇹 Juventus – Olympique Lyonnais 🇫🇷
Further decisions on the matches will be communicated in due course.
— UEFA (@UEFA) March 12, 2020
Coronavirus caught us all on the hop, didn’t it? Just a week ago, the suggestions that any of the above outcomes could turn into reality would have been derided as alarmist by some. Sure, plenty of people were ready to stock up on toilet paper (you can never have too much) but there were few who would have thought it would come to this.
Back then, jokes about COVID-19, ill-advised as they were even a week ago, could still hypothetically raise a chuckle for some. Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz acted one out, theatrically touching microphones and tape recorders at a team media session. On Wednesday night, according to multiple sourced reports, the French center tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the league to shut everything down until further notice. Teammate Donovan Mitchell also caught the virus, later tests confirmed.
— Dave Fox (@Davefox2) March 12, 2020
Major League Soccer followed suit on Thursday, ceasing its season for at least the next 30 days. A long list of sports organizations have made similar moves. Multiple collegiate events have been scrapped. Pro tennis is taking a self-imposed six-week break. An English Premier League game between Arsenal and Manchester City was postponed. Then Manchester City’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid.
Then, a meeting of European football executives was called to discuss pushing back this summer’s European Championships, the second-biggest international tournament in the world, by a year. In Italy, the whole country is on lockdown, so there are no sports of any description.
Then, in the wake of every major college basketball conference championship tournament being canceled, and the Duke Blue Devils suspending their athletic operations, the NCAA made the massive decision to cancel the men’s and women’s tournaments.
Players and coaches around college basketball react to the NCAA tournament being canceled. pic.twitter.com/x2oDFyODkR
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) March 12, 2020
It is all necessary and important. And it is sad.
I am pretty sure I am not alone among us in stating that sports has been an anchor in my life. When times have been at their toughest, through turbulent swings and relationship breakups and even the worst kind of family tragedy, it has always been there.
If you like sports enough, and if you like enough sports, there is always something to take your mind off things. Always something to watch and to get personally invested in, just for a while. Always something to debate, always a referee to criticize, always a feat of athleticism to marvel at.
Now there won’t be. And while that is right and justified and entirely appropriate given the number of deaths and the level of threat, it is a cruel twist of irony.
Because, right now, when people don’t know what is coming next and have every right to live with a level of fear, would be the perfect time for sports. If being shuttered indoors is a coming necessity for us, what better way to spend it than by watching the high-flying superheroes of the NBA fight it out heading into the playoffs? Or the finest soccer players on the planet performing at their peak as the season winds to its most critical phase?
FOX Sports statement: pic.twitter.com/ZMVX3ZIX3q
— FOX Sports PR (@FOXSportsPR) March 12, 2020
Sadly, that’s not the way it works. Athletes, for all their extraordinary powers, are humans like the rest of us. As Gobert, Mitchell, three members of the Leicester City EPL team and many other athletes prove, sports stars are just as susceptible to the coronavirus as anyone. They’re not immune to it and, given that the quality of their skills draws, by its nature, large crowds into confined spaces, it has to be one of the first things to go.
That we won’t be able to watch sports in the same way, and in some cases not at all, isn’t the most important thing right now. There are bigger problems at stake, more immediate things to think about, like – when was the last time you washed your hands?
But if you miss how things usually are, that’s okay. If not having an event to watch makes you sadder, that’s allowed. If you don’t get to fill in a bracket and feel something is lacking because of it, you’re not selfish or thoughtless.
You’re just getting used to the new normal, which is never easy. We are trying to figure out how to change along with the changes, as is everyone. As is sports.