If you’re like me, when the weight of politics, religious debates, and the monotony of mundane life seem to overwhelm the mind, watching sports is a way to recalibrate. So when the coronavirus began dominating headlines, I presumed sports would be the catalyst to put minds and emotions at ease. That vehicle of escapism came to an abrupt halt Thursday, March 12, 2020. This date will be forever remembered in history across the globe as the day sports were put on hold as a precaution to maintain the health of humanity.
So far in 2020, we’ve witnessed tragedy, chaos, and confusion ranging from the death of an NBA legend to the impeachment and acquittal of a U.S. President. And now, the coronavirus—AKA COVID-19—which is now labeled a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, has virtually shut down the staples of American entertainment.
What are we to do without our beloved sports? How can athletes come to grips with their careers halted and having way more time than usual before next season? And how might we respond in a tumultuous time filled with fear for an uncontrollable virus that affects us and our loved ones?In this way, the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us that close-knit, human-to-human and face-to-face communal gatherings—the kind we enjoy with sports—still matter.
No sport is unscathed from the coronavirus pandemic, and even as this is written, plans for particular leagues and franchises are fluid. Of course many other countries began halting or altering sporting events much sooner than the United States, but the scale at which this is now affecting the worldwide leader in sports entertainment is telling of the seriousness by which leaders are taking the matter. The chaos began when Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before Congress March 12 regarding the lackluster response our country was taking in regard to social gatherings and the impact it could have on our country’s well-being.
As a result, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and point guard Donovan Mitchell tested positive for the virus. Now, four Brooklyn Nets—including league MVP Kevin Durant—have also tested positive. The NHL postponed its season. NASCAR will have races without fans in attendance. Major League Baseball is canceling the spring season and will postpone opening day by at least two weeks. The NFL canceled their annual spring meeting and is altering plans for the 2020 NFL Draft. The PGA will tee off major tournaments without fans and postpone the annual Masters Tournament. The NCAA Basketball tournament—easily the hardest hit category with March Madness looming—canceled all 14 conference tournaments and the ensuing March Madness Tournament.
The initial response for many athletes is disappointment. As a coach and former college athlete, I know firsthand the amount of time, training, and dedication contestants pour into competition. It’s not easy to accept the loss of play that you’ve worked for all season—or even your whole career. And as a fan, now that sports aren’t available to distract me from this clamorous environment, I have to find other ways to cope. But as a believer, I have a much more important obligation than to wallow in disappointment and boredom.
This track and field season, the high school team I coach has an opportunity to compete for some significant individual and group achievements. For eight months, I’ve witnessed our athletes blossom into believers of each other, themselves, and the sport. Many were just beginning to buy-in to the reality that they could accomplish something beyond their wildest imaginations this year. And now our season has been put on hold—possibly canceled—and we have to put those dreams toward next season instead.
I wonder how our athletes will hold up with such a significant change. Will they be able to bounce back? Will they train on their own to come back prepared? Can they overcome this coronavirus obstacle while I am no longer by their side to motivate and coach them? But as a believer and a coach, I must remember that moments like these are opportunities to grow, to trust, and to remind our athletes that their identity isn’t in what they achieve or won’t achieve this season. What’s before us is an opportunity to remember our inherent value as image-bearers of God, which extends beyond the temporal vainglory of medals and trophies.
This is not to make light of the hard work and focus poured into their sport. In fact, many aspirations of being recruited for college or getting a professional contract rode on the performances of this season. The unfortunate loss of these opportunities are difficult to explain for those who’ve never performed in such extracurricular activities, but I assure you they hold a special place in the hearts of lifelong competitors. And if they hold such a place in the hearts of competitors, they are held almost as dearly to the fans.
Like I mentioned before, sports provide a steady rhythm for our American society. The year unfolds from one sport’s season to another, in a sort of liturgy we can all count on. It provides a recreational sense of escape when the burdens of the world are too much to bear. When all else seems to divide us, sports can bring people of different ages, races, genders, religions, and political affiliations together for a few hours at a time to gaze upon the beauty of equity through competition. Whether we’re for or against the same teams, the communal sense embedded in the rhythms of fandom provides us an expression and sense of self.
In this way, the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us that close-knit, human-to-human and face-to-face communal gatherings still matter. “Belonging is our primary human need,” as Jeremy Linneman wrote for The Gospel Coalition. God rendered it so since He made mankind (Genesis 2:18). Our human connections—even those around a television, in arenas, or alongside teammates competing—is a basic necessity to feel human. Without these gatherings, part of our humanity is lost. We are created to gather and be in close-knit communities, because it’s the nature of our Creator. So even when we cannot gather around sports, we can look to the values we gain from these rhythms—these liturgies—to guide our reaction to the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
Though we are aware of the situation and lament what is temporarily lost in this moment, competitors and fans can lift their eyes and focus their gaze beyond the fear and distress. Dayton Flyers basketball forward Obadiah Toppin, a front-runner for the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award, was looking forward to putting his skills on the national basketball stage in this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. But with that reality stripped away, Toppin fixed his gaze on God in the midst of the ongoing confusion—and encouraged others to do so too—with this retweet:
Remembering what’s eternal certainly puts into perspective what’s happening day to day. But that doesn’t mean we adopt a laissez-faire attitude regarding the outbreak, such as exhibited by some leaders. Downplaying the virus’s contagion or chastising others who take the proper health precautions is not helpful, as our Italian neighbors regrettably learned. Some claim all the precautions by state and local governments are overblown and are ruining sports. Some even incite apocalyptic fear as reason to why the virus is spreading while encouraging church members to gather en masse as though the virus doesn’t even exist.
Throwing caution to the wind, however, is not prudent or wise. Considering that African Americans, people with underlying illnesses, and elderly populations are at a greater risk of death from the coronavirus should make us pause before doing whatever is preferred personally—not to act out of fear, but out of love and regard for our neighbors. If choosing to not attend crowded events that ramp up the spread of COVID-19 will lower the chances of spreading it to my 80-year-old grandmother or neighbor, that is a sacrifice worth taking. The immediate satisfaction of participating in a sport does not hold a candle to the health and vitality of human lives.
We need more people with others’ centered behavior, rooted in a greater hope, who will not succumb to anxiety and fears of the unknown, but who also act with wisdom and prudence. This is exemplified by President Scogin of Hope College, when he announced one of the college’s students was being tested for COVID-19. Scogin encouraged everyone first to pray and to not engage in gossip, belittling, or discrimination. He also presented clear guidelines about what the college would do practically to provide support for the students. And last, he reminded everyone that “we are a people of hope” and that “we can and we should respond to this differently than the rest of the world is responding to this… we prepare, we plan, and we pray.”
That simple, calm approach is what we need in this time of unknowns. While sports are no longer present to distract us or help us build the community we need, all is not lost. Sports have shaped us, our whole society, and now in its absence we can see it all the more clearly. Like any other good thing, sports can be elevated to an idol-like status in our hearts and our society. But the powerful good of sports—for athletes, coaches, and fans—cannot be denied. This momentary pause is a reminder to reassess its place for us individually and collectively. And it’s a time to be grateful for the joy it brings, giving witness to an everlasting hope in Jesus who is Lord over all.