Sports in the time of COVID-19

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All it took was two quick notifications.

There I was, a freshman engineering student, enjoying my last week before spring break. It was a Wednesday, seemingly similar to any other. My friends and I had heard rumors of a few weeks off from school due to COVID-19, but didn’t think too much of it. 

We sat together, listening to music and playing cards, when one of my friends got a notification. Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert had contracted COVID-19. A few minutes later, our phones buzzed again, this time with the news of the NBA suspending its season indefinitely, effective immediately.

All of a sudden, something became certain to everyone in the room. This pandemic was real, and it was here. Weeks off became months, and 2020 became the year of COVID-19.

After that Wednesday, more and more sports cancellations came flying in, from imminent events like March Madness to ones further down the road like the Tokyo Olympics, being pushed back a full year. Sports fans across the world were wondering the next time they’d see their favorite athletes compete. We went from having sporting events in some capacity every day for centuries to none for months. In a time of despair, personal heroes were no longer available to turn to for entertainment or an outlet. 

On a university level, some athletes never got to see how their senior seasons ended. The NCAA was generous in giving athletes an extra year of eligibility, but some athletes didn’t have graduate school plans and just graduated instead of returning. My spring beat that year, women’s lacrosse, played a game that Wednesday against Columbia, not knowing it would be their last. The women’s basketball team, fresh off their undefeated conference regular season and tournament play, weren’t able to continue their successes in the NCAA tournament. Likewise, the men’s team, blazing hot on a five game win streak, saw no tournament play in March due to COVID-19.

Some events remained, but went virtual, like the WNBA and NFL drafts in April. They lost some of their luster, but were entertaining nonetheless. ESPN pushed up the release of “The Last Dance,” a cable documentary that shattered records for drawing in the most viewers in an age of streaming-dominated television.

In May, non-“Big Four” American sports (baseball, football, hockey and basketball) started to make a comeback, starting with (if memory serves) the KBO league, baseball in South Korea. I remember waking up early on a few occasions just to get in my sports fix. Soon after, we had our first U.S. event in months with UFC 249, which had no fans in attendance. A week later, Kevin Harvick won the first NASCAR race since the pandemic hit. A month later, the “Big Four” organizations laid plans to return as well, complete with rapid testing and masks. The NBA was the first, announcing the creation of the bubble down in Florida. The MLB, the last domino to fall, announced an ultra-short season of just 60 games set for a mid-July start. Despite attendance being very limited or nonexistent, we would finally have most of our sports back.

College sports took a little longer to return, with football most notably returning in the fall. At UConn, we saw the football season canceled, while Big East fall sports were pushed to early spring start times. Winter sports were able to start at their standard times. Our basketball teams were able to finish out their successful seasons, but not without a few separate weeks of program suspensions due to COVID-19 protocols.

It was definitely weird at first, watching only some of our favorite players as others sat out the year, and seeing stadiums of 30,000 empty seats with pumped-in crowd noise (or sometimes, no noise at all). There were some road blocks along the way, like false positives, players having to miss key games, as well as whole teams suspending operations for a week due to multiple cases. But we all adjusted, and the sports world somehow is living on in the uncertain time of COVID-19. 

We appear to be reaching the home stretch of the pandemic as more and more players have come back to their respective sports, and state and national officials are allowing more and more in-person attendance. With the state of the sports world returning to normalcy, it’s safe to say that we will never forget the past year with its wild and unprecedented events.

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