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Sports >  National sports

Larry Stone: In roughly 24 hours coronavirus makes sports, a longtime sanctuary in times of crisis, disappear

UPDATED: Fri., March 13, 2020

Mike Lemcke, from Richmond, Va., sits in an empty Greensboro Coliseum after the NCAA college basketball games were canceled at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Ben McKeown / AP)
Mike Lemcke, from Richmond, Va., sits in an empty Greensboro Coliseum after the NCAA college basketball games were canceled at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Ben McKeown / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It was dizzying. It was surreal. It was unfathomable.

In the span of 24 hours – a day no one will forget, one of those landmark moments forever etched in the psyche – the sports world slowly but inexorably went dark.

It essentially put itself in quarantine, shutting down indefinitely at all levels. Starting Wednesday and stretching into Thursday, league after league, organization after organization, came to the unavoidable conclusion that the continued staging of sports events would be an irresponsible health risk in the wake of what is now officially termed a pandemic.

All the speculation about the havoc that the novel coronavirus could wreak on the sports calendar went from theoretical to starkly real. Starting with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Wednesday morning news conference banning gatherings of 250 or more people, it seemed like the shock waves were nonstop. They peaked perhaps – perhaps – with the 1-2-3 punch of the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game being abruptly called off just before tipoff, Jazz star Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus), and then the NBA promptly suspending the season.

Like dominoes, the rest of the sports world followed, culminating with the cancellation of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments – a national obsession for a month each year – early Thursday afternoon. Soon after, MLB shuttered spring training and the University of Washington shut down its spring sports until March 29 – an action replicated around the country.

Now it’s hard to imagine an organized game in any sport being contested anywhere in the country for a while – the length of “a while” being so vague that it’s useless to even speculate. Which is the scary part.

The succession of news releases and bulletins announcing closure after closure was mind-numbing. At the same time, it was perversely heartwarming to see so many entities, with so much self-interest in not stopping play, collectively doing the right thing in the name of social distancing and containing the virus.

I’ll leave the cynicism to others about whether their motives were completely pure of heart; at a time when “flattening the curve” of coronavirus cases is paramount, and the threat of overburdening our health-care system is dire, any road that arrives at this destination is welcome.

I don’t want to hear about “overreaction,” either. I’ll defer to the experts on infectious diseases who are advocating for such measures, and the cautionary tales that are readily available about what happens when this disease spirals out of control. It’s not hysteria; it’s best practices.

And yes, sports is just a small – and some would say relatively inconsequential – part of the national and global crisis we’re facing. Just looking at the realm of health care and public education, not to mention the ripple effect on business and the economy, puts it into proper perspective.

What makes this unique – one of the vast number of things, actually – is that sports has always been the escape, the sanctuary, during times of crisis and collective stress.

But now the very act of conducting sports threatens to add exponentially to perpetuating the pandemic and growing the stress. There will be no reprise, in the foreseeable future, of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Green Light” Letter. That was delivered in January 1942, just a month after the Pearl Harbor attack, when baseball owners weren’t sure whether the season should continue. When Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis wrote to Roosevelt asking his advice, FDR responded the next day:

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” he wrote, saying it would be a source of comfort for American workers.

But now, that comfort will have to come elsewhere, because the very nature of sports – closely contested on fields and courts, fans compacted close together in the stands, delivered via travel to all parts of the country – is an amalgam of all the elements we’re suddenly trying so desperately to avoid.

Which brings us back to Wednesday, when all the preparations and concerns reached critical mass.

I’ve been around the sports world a long time – long enough that I’m, sigh, in the age group everyone is worrying about right now. At least, at the bottom end of it.

I’ve gone through a few hugely disorienting days as it pertains to sports – though again, the impact in this realm was just a fraction of the overriding concern for the well-being of society.

There was May 18, 1980, when I was in the first year of my first job out of college as a sportswriter, at the Yakima Herald-Republic. I awoke to pitch blackness in late morning, the result of the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the resulting ash fall. That was the very definition of surreal, and much of the next few weeks were spent, in our corner of the newspaper, investigating the impact on sports at the high school, community college and four-year college (specifically, Central Washington University) levels. But it wasn’t long before a return to normalcy settled back in – one that never left the rest of the country.

There was Oct. 17, 1989, when I was in the Candlestick Park press box in San Francisco, when it began to scarily sway back and forth shortly before Game 3 of the Bay Bridge World Series. The magnitude 6.9 earthquake threw the Series into disarray, and led to the weirdest news conference I’ve attended, with MLB commissioner Fay Vincent holding forth via candlelight because the electricity was out.

But that disruption, while significant in the Bay Area, was not only short-lived but confined to a specific area; after a short break, the World Series resumed.

There was Sept. 11, 2001, when we were all jolted out of our reverie by the horrifying news out of New York and beyond. Sports was the least of anyone’s concerns, and the baseball season – a record-setting one for the Mariners – was rightly suspended.

The overwhelming feeling of fear and angst during that period most replicates this one. The vast unknown hung over all of us, a profoundly disquieting feeling. Sports acted as a unifier, and healer. When President George W. Bush strode to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium – I was there in the press box – it was a riveting and symbolic moment signifying that we as a nation were undeterred.

These past two days have been unsettling in previously unimagined ways. Now we are facing a national crisis in which sports, by their very nature, are unable to be a balm on our frayed nerves; indeed, they are antithetical to that goal.

There will, no doubt, be many more disruptions and jarring developments to come. But those past 24 hours will resonate for a lifetime.

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