The sports world has gone dark. In an unprecedented sweep, this week almost every professional league decided to suspend or cancel its future games in response to growing concerns over the spread of Covid-19. The chain reaction was set off Wednesday night when the National Basketball Association announced it was “indefinitely” suspending its season after Utah Jazz all-star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. The next morning, Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell had also contracted the virus. By the end of day Thursday, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League, US Soccer, the Women’s Tennis Association, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Professional Golfers’ Association elected to enforce varying shutdown measures. The collective halt is history-making, to say the least. The sports world now finds itself in uncharted waters. It’s now all but silent.
One of the more shocking announcements on Thursday came out of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which said it was cancelling the remainder of its winter and spring championships, including the men’s and women’s March Madness basketball tournaments, one of the year’s marquee exhibitions. The ruling presents a considerable setback for 19 collegiate sports overall, from baseball and beach volleyball to women’s water polo. The basketball season was less than a month away from completion. Originally, the NCAA had planned to continue with the basketball tournament by hosting games in empty arenas (fans would be barred from attending), but as exposure posed an increasing threat to player safety, and conferences like the Atlantic Coast Conference (home to legacy teams like Duke) backed out, they decided to forego the tourney altogether.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few told The Los Angeles Times columnist Arash Markazi. “I think all of us felt we could postpone it even until May and if we needed to cancel, we could then.” Gonzaga was expected to be a No. 1 tournament seed. This will be the first time since 1938 that the NCAA basketball tournament will not go on. The loss is more than a cultural one, as the NCAA makes a majority of its annual revenue from March Madness; men’s Division 1 play brings in more than $800 million a year from the television deal alone, according to CNBC.
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Not every major league enforced full-on cancellations. MLB postponed the start of its season by two weeks. The NHL said it was putting its season on “pause,” citing concern over shared resources “given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point.” In a statement, MLS said it was suspending all games for 30 days while officials “assess the impact of Covid-19.” In the tennis world, the ATP said it was suspending the men’s tour for six weeks “due to escalating concerns over the health crisis.” Upcoming women’s tournaments in South Carolina, Guadalajara, and Bogota were canceled, but WTA CEO Steven Simon said “decisions on the European clay-court season would be made in the next week.” A suspension seems more than likely. To date, the International Olympic Committee has maintained that this summer’s Tokyo Games will go on as planned, but that could change in the weeks leading up to the July 24 start date.
Most leagues are holding out hope that seasons aren’t totally bungled. “My thinking was, even if we’re out for a month, even if we’re out for six weeks, we could still restart the season. It might mean then that the finals might take place in July,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a TV interview, explaining that the suspension will last at least 30 days. “It was way too premature to suggest we had lost the season.”
In a letter posted to Twitter Friday morning, pro golf commissioner Jay Monahan detailed his reasoning for suspending the PGA Tour. “I wanted to fight for our players and our fans and for this TOUR to show how golf can unify and inspire,” he wrote. “As the situation continued to escalate and there seemed to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, and not if, we would need to call it a day.”
What’s most fascinating about Monahan’s letter wasn’t what he said outright but what he implies; it is the suggestion that the sports world is not immune to the plagues of reality, no matter how much of the game is designed around hero worship, around a belief of invincibility. The game is not just a metaphor for life—some symbolic ideal that sits outside of the day-to-day happenings of viewers—but, so often, is life. So what must we do? We have no choice but to respect the lives of the athletes who gruel night after night to entertain us. Safety, as it is in our own lives, must come first. The alternative would be unthinkable.
The irony, of course, is that weeks like this are when we need sports the most. The high drama of a Lakers-Celtics game can be the best kind of escape from confusion, worry, and hysteria. Same goes for watching your alma mater get chosen on Selection Sunday. For fans, victories on the court are their own special kind of win, fuel for the week ahead.
But even as the sports world has gone dark, and the stadiums silent, the fundamentals of the game haven’t changed: The exchange between fan and player is still paramount. In fact, in times like these, that extension of trust feels more crucial than ever. Without each other, the player without fan support and the fan without someone to root for and emulate, the game crumbles, even when there’s no game to watch. Because when the lights do come back on, and the stadiums are again ablaze with anticipation, it’s the trust between fan and player that will have carried us through this moment. It gives us both a reason to return.
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