March 10, 2021

Reflections on a Crazy Year of COVID and Sports, Dealing with Pandemic Gives Play Deeper Meaning

By Bill Alden

It was a year ago this week that the sports world came to a skidding halt across the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a harbinger of things to come, the Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s postseason basketball tournaments on March 10. While that decision was seen as too hasty by many, when Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus a day later that became the tipping point for the cancellation of athletic competition worldwide.

In the dark days of late March, there was no certainty when the games would resume and in what form. As masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing became staples of daily life, coaches and athletes adapted.

The Zoom platform for video conferences became ubiquitous, helping to keep players and coaches in contact. NFL teams learned that they could install offenses and defenses virtually instead of on the practice field.

Athletes developed home workout routines, converting garages and basements into gyms across the country. Some Princeton University athletes did squats using backpacks jammed with books and performed strength training the old-fashioned way via sit-ups and push-ups.

In May, South Korea’s top baseball league, the Korean Baseball Organization, briefly became the focus of the sports world as ESPN started broadcasting its games in the wee hours of the morning to fill the void with U.S. pro leagues still being in hold.

The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary chronicling Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls, became required viewing. Aired on ESPN in April and May, the show drew millions of viewers from sports-starved fans.

A charity golf match pitting Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in late May provided a form of live competition. Brady holing out from more than 100 yards out on the seventh hole after struggling early in proved to be a highlight. But the best moment of the rainy day in Florida came after the match when it was revealed that the competition raised $20 million for COVID-19-related organizations.

As the summer approached, the word “bubble” took on a new meaning, referring to an isolated set of accommodations and venues in which athletes can reside and compete away from the general public. The bubble became the lifeline for live sports as the NHL, NBA, WNBA, pro lacrosse, and pro soccer set up bubbles to provide competition.

While there were no fans on hand at the various campuses set up from Florida to Canada to Utah, there was crowd noise piped in to provide some soundtrack. In addition, cardboard cut-outs of fans, players, and celebrities packed the stands to give some visual support.

Pro golf resumed competition on courses without galleries, depriving  competitors of the roars that greet dramatic shots but giving viewers a different view of venerable lay-outs. Major champions were crowned in the PGA, Masters, and U.S. Open.

Locally, the Last Dance World Series baseball tournament held in July gave New Jersey high school seniors the chance to play with their teams one last time. The event draws 222 teams statewide, including clubs from Princeton High and Hun School baseball teams.

Major League Baseball played a shortened schedule of approximately 60 games as opposed to 162 which did include travel and resulted in some cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19 concerns. Playoffs were held in neutral sites in California and Texas with players sequestered in hotels and some fans allowed to attend the World Series.

College and pro football forged ahead, with coaches and players on pins and needles waiting for daily COVID test results. Some college programs were sidelined for weeks due to virus pauses while a handful of NFL teams found themselves playing on Tuesdays as their schedules were jumbled due to postponements.

However, the Ivy League never made it back to the gridiron as the league canceled all fall competition and later decided not to hold a winter season as well.

In New Jersey, with the encouragement of Gov. Phil Murphy, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) went ahead with a limited fall season that went from October 1 to the first week of November. Football, field hockey, soccer, tennis, and cross country teams were able to compete with restrictions. Players were masked when not in action and distanced on the bench while coaches added washing down equipment to their duties.

There were pauses, postponements, cancellations, and rescheduling on the fly but in dealing with adversity, players gained a genuine appreciation for being able to play and interact with teammates. The win-loss record took a back seat to simply being on the field, especially when many students had spent their day doing classes remotely on laptops at home.

PDS girls’ soccer player Jules Romano summed up how players and coaches alike lived in the moment.

“We have been told treat every game like it is the last game you are ever going to play,” said Romano after the team’s season opener.

“Even if we take all of the safety precautions, we could be playing against a team that had one player not taking it seriously. Every day it is get out here and make the most of it, even in practice, because we could be shut down any second.”

The winter season posed new challenges as the virus surged and indoor contact seen as particularly risky, leading to gyms and rinks across New Jersey going dark in December. The NJSIAA divided the winter campaign into two phases with basketball and hockey running from February 1 to March 6 and swimming, wrestling, indoor track, and volleyball taking place later.

Like the fall, hoops and hockey players and coaches pressed forward, happy to be in the gym or at the rink and the teams made it through last Saturday. While some teams played 10-12 games and others played three or four, once again there was gratitude for the chance to compete.

While the distribution of vaccines gives hope that a sense of normalcy may be around the corner, the sports world is not out of the woods as restrictions remain in effect.

Hopefully by next March, masking will be a distant memory, social distancing will be considered anti-social, and cardboard cutouts won’t be getting front row seats.

But one trusts that after enduring this crazy, awful, and unpredictable year of COVID, players, coaches and fans alike will have developed a greater appreciation for the games they play and watch that will never leave them.