Were these normal times, I’d be opining on a number of juicy sports topics this week. I’d be all over the blockbuster trade that brought wide receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, giving quarterback Josh Allen the target that might make the Bills Super Bowl contenders for the first time in a quarter century. I would be analyzing to death the significance of Tom Brady’s shocking departure from the New England Patriots after two decades of unequalled excellence. And I would have dusted off my crystal ball and revealed my choices to win the NCAA basketball tournament and World Series.
But these clearly aren’t normal times. Sports and so many other aspects of our lives have been benched by the coronavirus pandemic. The return to normalcy is up in the air. Medical experts have warned that life as we know it probably will get much worse before it gets better.
I’ve written often about the galvanizing power of sports, of how, especially during times of trouble, they can serve an important purpose. They can unify and, if not heal our wounds, then at least provide a respite from the awfulness of the present. I experienced this first-hand at the 2001 World Series six weeks after 9/11, when I sat with my son in the upper deck of old Yankee Stadium, just miles north of the ruins of the Twin Towers, and watched the New York Yankees provide a stricken city and nation some much needed relief. The terrorists would not win. The games would go on, even as tears streamed and more bodies were discovered. It’s still the most emotional day I’ve ever spent at a sporting event. Bar none.
I’ll also never forget the powerful emotions that swept over us that late January 1991 night in Tampa, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants staged a game for the ages in Super Bowl XXV, shortly after the United States had entered the Persian Gulf War. The sense of patriotism and unity was palpable. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
And I experienced the coming together of the world while covering five Olympics. Those Games, in places as disparate as China, Greece and Norway, reminded me that even mortal enemies could take a three-week break every two years to celebrate our shared humanity rather than quarrel over our differences.
That said, this crisis feels different, is different. Sports — and virtually everything else that brings people together, especially in large settings — have been shut down. And rightfully so, given the dangers and uncertainties of COVID-19. Unlike the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s when Babe Ruth was taking a bat to baseballs and our worries, and World War II, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt greenlighted that the games go on, we can’t turn to sports for relief this time.
This time, the games can’t go on. At least not for the foreseeable future. And, while I understand and support the shutdown completely, a part of me worries that a fractured, polarized society will become even more divided, even more isolated. I also worry about sports’ ability to bounce back. Will things ever be the same?
As we’ve seen during the dramatic escalation of COVID-19, trying times can cause people to panic and do asinine things. The hip-checking at grocery stores in order to grab an extra package or five of toilet paper is appalling, and speaks to the worst aspects of human nature. Even more despicable is the stockpiling of hand sanitizers and masks by avaricious scoundrels trying to take advantage of a tragic situation by selling their bounty on the internet for exorbitant prices.
I seek solace and wisdom from the past. FDR was a courageous, compassionate leader who calmly and adroitly navigated troubled waters. He assured us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. Gen. George Patton and legendary football coach Vince Lombardi warned that fatigue makes cowards of us all. And former All-Star centerfielder Jimmy Piearsall, who battled bipolar disorder, showed us that sometimes fear strikes out. I’m hoping it does this time. I’m hoping we are touched by, as Lincoln so eloquently stated, the better angels of our nature.
Thankfully, some sports figures and organizations are stepping up. It was nice to see owners Mark Cuban and Kim Pegula pledge to help out the arena workers who will feel economic burdens that LeBron James and others can’t fathom should the games not go on. I’m thrilled athletes like Zion Williamson, Steph Curry, Blake Griffin, J.J. Watt and Trevor Bauer are digging into their deep pockets and setting up GoFundMe sites to aid the ticket takers, ushers and concession workers.
I feel for high school and college athletes who have had their seasons and, in many cases, careers cut short. It’s sad that teams like the Dayton Flyers will be left to forever wonder if they would have been cutting down basketball nets and enjoying their one shining moment. I commiserate with spring sports athletes who may not experience a season at all.
Dashed dreams are difficult to handle, but pale in comparison to the true tragedies unfolding in real time. So many families have lost loved ones to this pandemic. And many others are suffering severe economic hardships. If losing out on a championship opportunity or an entire sports season is the worst thing that happens to you, then you’ve enjoyed a darn good life.
Fans flocked back to arenas following world wars, terrorist attacks and nasty work stoppages caused by squabbling billionaire owners and multimillionaire athletes. I’m thinking sports are resilient, that people will return. But what if they don’t? After the coronavirus pandemic subsides, people may continue practicing social distancing and stay away. What if they become afraid of attending large gatherings and no longer partake in the camaraderie that sports can cultivate?
I’m praying people don’t opt to remain in bubbles. I’m hoping fear strikes out.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.