It’s been more than a week and I’m still confused every morning when I hear my iPhone sound ESPN’s infamous tune. What notifications could the sports media conglomerate possibly be sending me when the world is void of all sports? Nonetheless, when I take a look at the screen, there reads a few bullet points of “sports news,” if you can really call it that. No disrespect intended from one journalist to another because I wholeheartedly know the struggle ESPN’s reporters are going through right now, but you can definitely tell their newsroom is scraping the bottom of the barrel or grasping for straws, looking to make something out of nothing.
To be fair, however, it isn’t their fault they don’t have anything of substance to report. It’s no one’s fault actually. Still, who would have predicted there would be no little league baseball, no recreational track and field, no high school tennis, no anything? Who in their wildest dreams would have thought even the biggest and wealthiest of sports organizations would shut down completely? NASCAR practically owns a day of the week and yet they joined the MLB, the NBA, the NHL, and even the PGA Tour, just to name a few pro sports organizations, in shutting down their events for now. Minus a time traveler, I doubt anyone would have predicted this bizarre situation, but thanks to COVID-19, here we are. The seriousness of the coronavirus finally hit home for me when the Masters were postponed on March 13.
Joining the heartbreaking list of suspensions, cancellations, and postponements was the Georgia High School Association. The GHSA issued a 2-week suspension of all events starting March 12. That suspension would have ended March 27, but on March 17 after Governor Brian Kemp mandated the closure of all public schools until March 31, the GHSA followed suit and extended its suspension of all spring activities. As of March 24, the governor extended the closing until April 6 and the GHSA followed his lead again. According to a statement made Tuesday on ghsa.net by executive director Robin Hines, the board of directors would meet Friday, March 27, to plan for “all scenarios that could pertain to the spring season and spring championships.” No decision has been made public yet.
My heart breaks for the seniors who may have huddled up at practice or maybe played their last games unknowingly, and I share that heartbreak for the slew of NCAA athletes who are in the same boat.
Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, and the NCAA Board of Governors announced March 11 that the upcoming championships, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, would be played only with essential staff and limited family members attending. Just one day later, that decision turned south for teams like Kansas, Gonzaga, and Dayton on the men’s side and South Carolina, Oregon, and Baylor on the women’s side. Those ranking top-sitters were poised to make serious runs for national titles this year, but when Emmert and the board decided March 12 that no NCAA spring (or winter!) championships would be held, gone were the teams’ aspirations of becoming national champions. The story was exactly the same for bowling, fencing, gymnastics, ice hockey, mixed rifle, mixed skiing, swimming and diving, indoor track and field, wrestling, baseball, softball, golf, lacrosse, rowing, tennis, beach volleyball, outdoor track and field, and water polo teams across the country. The NAIA, the NJCAA, and all other collegiate athletic associations cancelled their seasons, too.
The good news, at least for the student-athletes who compete in the NCAA? Eligibility relief is on the way. A petition began circulating among players, coaches, families, and fans following the newsbreak about the fate of the 2019-2020 seasons. By March 14, NCAA leadership made a statement that all spring athletes would be granted another year of eligibility for the taking. A decision for winter sports has yet to be made, but eligibility relief doesn’t look too promising for those athletes since the majority of the 300 teams in the association finished their seasons. How all of this shakes out in the long run in terms of recruiting, playing time for incoming freshmen and possible returning fifth-year seniors, and scholarship money is unchartered territory for spring sports, who notoriously have small rosters and even tighter scholarship budgets. The 2020-2021 seasons will be interesting to say the least. I fully expect the transfer portal will light up like a Roman candle and some mid-major programs will emerge even stronger.
As much as we Americans love sports, especially those at the college level, and we’re missing our favorite teams in action, this entire coronavirus situation lends us to one point: health officials aren’t calling this a pandemic for nothing. It’s safe to say the absence of sports isn’t the priority right now, given the infection and mortality rates continue to change in countries across the world like China, Italy, and Spain, but other countries are mourning the loss of sports just like us. Japan recently cancelled its 2-part professional baseball and softball seasons, and all major European soccer competitions have been put on hiatus. That’s not the worst of it, though. As of Tuesday, March 24, the Japanese, along with the International Olympic Committee, made a tough but ultimately inevitable call to postpone the 2020 Games. The new date for the Olympics is set for July 23 through August 8, 2021.
Exactly when we’ll see our favorite teams suit up again is unclear, but to take a line from a fellow journalist and friend’s column, Jeremy Johnson of The Oconee Enterprise said it best: life without sports is a worthy sacrifice. Until we can watch our beloved players again, we’ll have to settle for reruns of previous years’ championships on ESPN and reflecting on defining moments of the past. Maybe these reactions—the suspensions, cancellations, and postponements—to this entire pandemic seem over the top. I’ll admit, when NCAA softball was scratched for the year just five weeks into play, I was both heartbroken and perturbed. Now, as COVID-19 inches its way closer to my homefront with cases in Laurens, Burke, and other nearby counties, I understand the precautionary measures. Sporting events draw crowds by the hundreds and thousands, and COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. I get the importance of “social distancing,” as we’re calling it. It’s going to be a long few months until I can watch yellow ball on television again or see our local schools in action on the playing field. It’s going to be difficult, but in the end, I think the sacrifices will be worth it. In the meantime, I’ll be saying a prayer for all of the athletes who have been left to their own devices to work through the slew of emotions that accompany this unprecedented time in history—and okay, I’ll admit it… I’ll keep being confused when I hear ESPN’s tune every morning, too.