Sports and COVID-19

June 10th, 2020

The day it all got real 

There had been warning signs before March 11, 2020, that COVID-19 might change our lives, but nothing as stark as that night. The virus had slowly crept into pockets of the United States and we had begun to hear talk of hospital bed shortages in Italy and the cancellation of large conferences planned for the summer. Then Rudy Gobert got sick. 

It was a Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, and Gobert, the center for the visiting Utah Jazz, had been listed as unavailable for the team’s game with the Oklahoma City Thunder, due to illness. Then, just before tip-off, the National Basketball Association (NBA) issued a statement that Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. The game was immediately canceled and the fans seated in the already full arena were sent home. Later that night, the entire season was put on hold. “The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of tonight’s schedule of games until further notice,” the statement read. 

The next day the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer joined the NBA in suspending their seasons. Major League Baseball announced that the biggest harbinger of spring for many people, Opening Day, would be delayed by at least two weeks. Three months later, Opening Day has still not been announced. 

In the days, weeks and months that followed there have been innumerable alterations to our lives brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports might seem the least of our worries, but it’s hard to underestimate its social impact. As I write this, professional sports leagues are still trying to figure out how to come back, and it doesn’t seem like the world will be anything like the one we knew until they do. This forces us to wonder why sports play such a big role in so many of our lives. 

Sports as community healing 

Like me, your initial reaction to the suspension of live sports might have been, “Oh great, what will I watch now?” But more than the loss of entertainment, sports also represent a big business. Bleacher Report revealed that a 2013 summary of the sports industry in the United States listed 456,000 sport-related jobs. Beyond these jobs, there are stadium employees and other ancillary personnel employed for every live event. The economic impact on cities reaches into the billions. That same column reported that one team, the Chicago Cubs, generates “$600 million annually for the state of Illinois.” 

All of that revenue points to the huge civic interest we have in sports. Sports teams come to represent their cities and, in times of community crisis, we rally around our teams. “Boston Strong” became the slogan of the summer for that city after the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April 2013. The city’s baseball team paid tribute to the victims during their first series after the bombings and then rode the slogan all the way to a World Series victory later that year. Mike Moustakas, an opposing player, said, “It was an unbelievable feeling to . . . watch the city rally around the Red Sox . . . . All I remember is being there and feeling how sports could heal in times of need.” 

Columnist Vasilus Drimalitis recently wrote for SB Nation that a home run hit by Mike Piazza for the New York Mets in their first game back in the city following the September 11, 2001, attacks holds a similar meaning for him. “Sports can truly help us heal in the worst of times. One day, it will be safe to bring sports back, whether that happens in 2020 or in 2021 . . . I imagine they will play a similar role in helping us get back to something resembling normal, and they will play a big part in our collective healing.”

Sports and time 

In addition to drawing a community together, sports help us mark time. Many Christians noted that the rhythm of the liturgical year was disrupted by the closure of most churches during the pandemic shutdowns. Easter is generally a high-water mark for in-person attendance at churches. With the buildings shuttered, the celebration felt significantly more subdued. 

Similarly, when the sporting events that normally mark our spring season began passing by, it seemed as though something important was missing. Could it really be May without the Kentucky Derby? June without the NBA finals? the summer of a presidential election year without the Olympics? 

We were also deprived of making new memories. There are days I can remember with perfect clarity because they contained a major event in sports. For instance, I can vividly remember Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, which I watched in a tiny storefront in Mexico with a group of church members who had taken me in for a week. Any mention of that game immediately returns me to that particular time and place. 

Many of us have found that we had unacknowledged calendars ticking within us. A part of us that moved with the cycles of the sports we love was out of sorts. A method our brains had devised for helping us remember had been short-circuited.

The spiritual significance of sports 

I once saw the biblical story of David confronting Goliath presented as if it were a soccer match with the Israelites and Philistines offering chants and cheers for their champions. In a way, David’s rejection of the armor he was offered and his trust in God was a rebuke to those who put too much stock in heroes. David told King Saul, “The Lord . . . who rescued me from the power of both lions and bears, will rescue me from the power of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37). 

In another way, David was an embodiment of the best ideals of his people. His faith, wit, and audacity were worth cheering for and, in a time of fear, he reminded his nation what they were all about. 

When we invest in our teams, we want them to do the same for us. We want them to remind us of who we are at our best and how we can overcome. Sure, we sometimes love our sports to excess and the stadiums we build for them are surely grander than they need to be. But they also join us together and lift us up with hope to face the battles we must face. One day, they’ll be back.


Sports leading the way back 

If sports were a signal that the pandemic was starting in earnest, they may also be a sign that things are slowly getting better. For many Americans, having sporting events again will be a sign that something like our old way of life is returning. 

The National Hockey League (NHL), which suspended its season on the same day as the NBA, has developed detailed plans for its own return. The New York Times reported in late May that the NHL was looking at voluntary workouts in June, followed by a 24-team playoff, canceling the remaining games that were on the schedule for the regular season. 

However, the games will not look like regular games. They will almost certainly be played in empty arenas with testing for players and new features such as mandatory full-face shields and no fighting. 

The planning going into decisions like this mimics the plans that many businesses and churches are developing to ease into reopening. Many organizations are realizing that they will have to look very different for some time to come. Churches will have to institute distancing, mandatory face coverings, restricted singing and forgo the passing of any items. 

For many, this will be an uncomfortable reality, but just like having a game to watch after a long absence of sports will feel like a sign of something larger, gathering together again as a church will feel like the end of a long wilderness journey, too.

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