As one of the many millions who follow sports closely, maybe a little too closely at times, the coronavirus has just walked us off. Maybe not for the entire seasons in baseball, basketball, or individual sports. And perhaps not at all for football. But for baseball, basketball, soccer and softball, along with lots of other winter and spring sports, we’re done for now.
From this corner, the halt to our games seems to hit high school athletes in the winter sports the hardest. They won’t get these games or seasons back. The vast majority won’t play in college. Besides basketball and soccer, girls and boys teams were prepping for state championships in wrestling and water polo. Just underway in the spring season, in addition to baseball and softball, are golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, tennis, track & field, volleyball and swimming/diving. Championships in those sports are held in April and May.
If you doubt the commitment, training, athleticism, or intensity of championship athletes in any of those prep sports, buy a ticket to a CIF championship the next time they roll around. You won’t doubt any more. Crowds at high school championships are different. They include the parents, siblings, neighbors, and teachers of the athletes. They are all invested in those kids, wanting them to win, but if not, then at least to experience the thrill of competition at that elite level.
Beyond the prep championships, but probably more important, is the value of high school athletics in the overall growth and development of young men and women. There is no program more powerful than high school sports when it comes to keeping marginally achieving students enrolled and passing classes. When young men and women play high school sports, good behaviors flourish (attendance, achievement, behavior) and bad ones diminish (dropouts, pregnancy, office referrals).
In neighborhoods where gangs threaten young people, high school sports often save lives, literally. Athletes’ time is occupied. Once committed to their sport, prep athletes take better care of themselves. When an English teacher talks to a coach about one of his or her students that’s not doing assignments, watch the behavior change after the coach talks to the student. It happens thousands of times a year in every big city, hundreds of times in smaller towns.
Next to all that, the college athletes whose seasons have just terminated are the biggest victims. March Madness is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and for the games to end on its brink is an incredibly cruel fate. The top athletes may go on to NBA and WNBA careers, but just like in high school, most competitors will not be making the jump to the next level.
Basketball is the biggest college sport at this time of year, but NCAA baseball and softball also draw millions of spectators across the country. They’re big-time in every sense of the term. Those athletes’ training and commitment is every bit as demanding and comprehensive as other sports. But their seasons are over now, only weeks after starting.
Among athletes, perhaps the least sympathetic are the professionals, and that comes from someone who loves pro sports. The NBA Playoffs and Championships are just around the corner, and pro hoops features more phenomenal shooters, passers, defenders and rebounders than ever before. The idea that Lebron James, Giannis Antetokoumpo and Kawhi Leonard are not going to compete with each other for a championship is awful, pure and simple.
But between just those three is a combined annual salary of nearly $100 million. Yes, they’re incredible players, almost unimaginably devoted to their game. It’s unfair to put this issue solely into monetary terms, but here it is: they’re gonna be ok. As will the rest of the players in the NBA, whose median salary is somewhere around $2.5 million a year. And if we’re all lucky, maybe the season will resume and both the players and fans will be rewarded.
As far as team owners go, it’s hard to generate a lot of sympathy. Many are billionaires, the rest multi-millionaires (in the major sports), yet they charge preposterous amounts for food and beverages at their arenas, ballparks and stadia. And that’s after fans pay top-dollar to get in. So no, there isn’t a lot of love left for pro sports owners.
Those who work in pro sports in support capacities—concessionaires, souvenir sellers, maintenance staffs—are the ones who deserve our sympathy and support. They don’t make a lot of money to begin with, and now that’s gone. The teams’ front office staffs are still reporting to work, still getting paid, and will be back to normal routines at some point.
That covers, at least on the surface, the main stakeholders. Save one group: the fans. From casual to ardent, the impact of cancelling and suspending games has had a profound impact. For non-believers it’s easy to say, “Oh, get a life!” (I’ve heard that more than few times).
But for lots of fans, sports IS their life. And honestly, you can do a lot worse. But even for the casual-to-highly interested, attending live sports, at any level, is a wonderful and sometimes transcendent experience. It’s a cliché, but often true, that fans leave their social, professional, and political bags at the door when they get to the ballpark. The give-and-take is fun! Winning teams galvanize entire communities. Add that to the amazing athleticism on field or court, and there you have the beauty of spectator sports.
So here’s to hoping the medical/scientific community is given the resources and opportunity to solve this crisis, that none of the players, spectators or fans are lost to the coronavirus, and the games we love are returned to us soon.