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The Role of Sports in a Time of Crisis

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Sports in a Time of Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives, and going without sports has shown us all that we take for granted when we watch our favorite teams. Tripp Burton, Upper Hand’s Content Writing Intern and junior at Emory University describes how the Coronavirus pandemic has shifted our global perspective on sports, as well as how it has shaped his new reality. 

The Role of Sports in a Time of Crisis

There’s an old cliche that many powerful stories start with.

“Do you remember when?” The simple question freezes moments in time, placing them on a pedestal and subjecting them to reinterpretation, discussion, and, perhaps most importantly, reliving.

Rarely do we recognize their importance in our present lives; maybe that’s why we spend so much time reminiscing on the past and anticipating the future. But every so often, an instance comes around that is immediately recognizable as an inflection point in all of our lives.

March 2020 has undeniably brought forth one of those moments. 

A corollary to the “do you remember when” question is “do you remember where you were?” I was on spring break, sitting on my living room couch with my parents and my little sister. I had spent the last day refreshing my Twitter timeline, tracking the shocking news of NBA players testing positive for COVID-19, the NCAA barring fans from March Madness, and the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic.

Despite the magnitude of the crisis, it still felt distant. That is, until I received an email from my school, informing us campus would close for the semester, and classes would move online. My group chats flooded with messages. I spent the night on the phone with my friends, all of us stunned and dismayed. We were devastated, but eventually, at one point or another, all of us said “at least we can sit around all day and watch sports,” or “at least we can get to the gym more often.”

In a matter of hours, we learned we couldn’t do either. Everything was closed. Everything was cancelled. 

Coronavirus and Sports
The Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, after the NBA canceled games due to a player testing positive for COVID-19

In times like these, sports are the least of our worries. The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis, devastating millions of people. As of April 1st, the number of reported cases reached over 875,000. Nearly 40,000 people have died. Hospitals are being inundated with patients, being pushed to their breaking point. Countries are on lockdown, people cloistered off in their homes. The terms “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” are now integral parts of our vocabulary. Watching otherworldly millionaire athletes play a game should not be our focus.

So why, then, has the absence of sports felt so arresting?

The answer is simple— sports represent what is lost due to the coronavirus. There are few things that connect people like sports. According to Statista, there are 8.58 million fans of the Dallas Cowboys. To any one person, 99.99% of those fans are complete strangers. But when Sunday comes around, those 8.58 million people share the same intense feelings.

In a time when isolation is the most essential part of life, we all crave connection. No amount of greatest sports moments montages on YouTube, video calls with family and friends, or social media challenges can match the unadulterated communal experience of an NBA Finals, UEFA Euro 2020, or the Olympics. 

The Olympics were the last to go, with the decision to postpone coming on March 24. The postponement of the Olympics is the most symbolic repercussion of the coronavirus pandemic. Every four years, athletes from almost every nation in the world gather in one city. National idols, like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, are given the world’s attention.

Despite all of its downfalls, the Olympics is our most visceral emblem of togetherness. Postponing the event was necessary, but the hesitancy to do so was reflective of our impossibility to keep apart. 

In times of disaster, there are those that rise above. In the sports world, many have come forth to allay the economic hardships faced by part-time workers. Stars like Steph Curry, Kevin Love, Zion Williamson, Drew Brees, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Roger Federer, and countless others are making an effort to support those affected by the declining global economy. Lionel Messi and his FC Barcelona teammates agreed to take a 70% pay cut to ensure that the club’s lower level employees earn 100% of their salaries during Spain’s ongoing state of emergency. 

Lionel Messi Sports Coronavirus
Lionel Messi is one of the many athletes donating to coronarivus relief efforts

The sports stars certainly deserve admiration for their actions. But, again, the sports world is not where focus should be directed. The real heroes during the coronavirus crisis are those medical workers devoting their lives to the well being of hospitalized patients. They have become the ones to display perseverance through fatigue, bruises, and loss. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci has become a household name because of his exquisite temperament and honesty in guiding the nation. We will come out the other end of this crisis, and the All-Stars we need to remember are not LeBron James or Giannis Antentounkmpo, but the nurses, doctors, and health care officials who looked a pandemic in the eyes, and defeated it. 

This post is just one of hundreds of articles written about the role of sports in a pandemic. The best interpretation of sports in the current moment comes courtesy of Brian Phillips at The Ringer, who wrote that what sports represent “in this moment is a microcosm of our anxiety, ambivalence, and hope— and for those of us living with the uncertainty of these days, of uncertainty itself.”

We don’t know when this crisis will pass, just like we don’t really know who will win the championship. All we can do is put in the necessary work to make our hope a reality. 

It has been three weeks since that night on my living room couch. I have, like everyone else, been living in a muddled state, not knowing when normalcy will return. Perhaps this is the new normal, at least for a little while.

My friends and I have moved on from our initial concerns of no sports. We still miss the thrill, the drama, and the escape sports give us.

But we miss each other more. We now long for times when we can all be in the same room again, telling those “do you remember when” stories. For now, we must find togetherness in being apart, connection in isolation.

It is the only way the coronavirus can become a “do you remember when” story. 


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