This is now the Year of Playing Dangerously.
Presuming anyone gets to play from this point on.
A few odd scores dribbled in Thursday for the local teams. Gonzaga’s men got a dual tennis victory at Fresno State before the school pulled the plug on the rest of the season. Eastern Washington’s Madalyn Ardueser shot a 70 for the lead in a golf tournament in Utah that won’t see a finish.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the lights went out on Broadway as part of the swift nationwide sweep to limit large social gatherings – an immobilization, if you will, in hopes of stemming the spread of the coronavirus. But much to everyone’s astonishment, St. John’s and Creighton jumped it up in the Big East Conference Tournament’s first quarterfinal.
Conference after conference had already shut down basketball events, leaving the Big East to endure a public battering for such tone deafness. In the ghost ship of Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm and the Bluejays slogged up and down the floor not to cheers but to the echoes of sneaker squeaks before the league came to its senses at halftime.
One spectator told Sports Illustrated, “It was like an 8 a.m. AAU game.”
This is how they were going to play the NCAA basketball tournaments – in front of only TV cameras, essential personnel and a few family members – until the inevitable was made immediate Thursday afternoon and the whole spectacle was canceled.
But maybe they should have played at least a couple of those NCAA games, a la the Big East, just to underscore a message.
We have just been through the most astonishing 24 hours in sports, with seasons shuttered, commerce halted and athletes set adrift in an eddy of their own emotions. There is no real idea when the scoreboards get turned on again, or what it might be like once they do.
In this time, public empathy mostly has been with the heartbreak of players – in college basketball primarily, though now many other sports are involved – who still had games ahead and championships to win, and whose dreams will go unrequited not because of being on the wrong end of a score but because of a villain they can’t really assail.
Eastern might have been a Cinderella. Gonzaga might have taken it all. Whitworth, Idaho, North Idaho and the Community Colleges of Spokane – all with teams still in the hunt.
Naturally, these are trivial matters silhouetted against the possible human cost of a global pandemic and the risk of overwhelming our health system. But having it all snatched away is immediate, hurtful and emptying to the athletes involved. Many will never be in this place and time again – the window closing on their chance to be a part of something special in a way most of us never get to experience. Now it’s all been work simply for the sake of the work.
For most, it’s impossible to process at the moment. There are tears and bitterness, and they should not be mocked.
There is also a useful end: thinking beyond yourself.
Something suggests that if a few games went on in empty arenas in pursuit of the old normal, it would soon come to feel less special – like those 8 a.m. AAU games referenced earlier. It would become clearer that something much bigger is happening beyond those walls, with fallout – medical, social and economic – likely to be more devastating than anything they’re currently feeling.
This is no Olympic boycott, aspirations sacrificed on the altar of politics.
This is us and our well-being.
This was, in fact, the message Gonzaga coach Mark Few tried to impart when he faced his team with the news of the NCAA cancellation.
Few had been part of a group of coaches that tried to marshal momentum for a postponement of the tournament instead, and his disagreement with the finality of the NCAA’s decision was obvious in his public remarks Thursday. He’s a basketball guy who’s lived the investment of his players, and hoped to protect that.
Nonetheless, as GU athletic director Mike Roth related, it was Few who told his players, “If one person doesn’t get sick, doesn’t pass away because of us having to cancel the tournament, it’s worth it.”
“It’s hard to argue,” Roth said. “That’s somebody’s mom, or somebody’s dad.”
When Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had a test for COVID-19 turn up positive on Wednesday, there was no choice for the NBA but to suspend operations. Surely, that had to resonate with some players. Or when a referee who had worked the Colonial Athletic Association tournament tested positive on Thursday.
Had a player in the NCAA Tournament become infected, it would have been irresponsible to keep playing.
So, really, it’s irresponsible – even dangerously so – to play now.