The Long Game: Covid Changed The Way We Play, Watch, Cheer
AppleMagazine|March 12, 2021
It’s the predictable rhythm of sports that draws us in.

Not so much the results of the games themselves as the steady cadence of the seasons -- the cutting down of nets and hoisting of trophies, the pregame hype and postgame deconstructions, the trade talk and injury crises that envelop each passing year with the regularity of an atomic clock.

So, when two NBA basketball teams were hastily sent back to their locker rooms, not to return, after pregame introductions on March 11, 2020, and, then, a day later, when two college basketball teams walked off the floor at halftime and also didn’t come back -- “Game Ppd, pandemic” -- it was a shock to the system.

It was one thing for the still-nascent collection of COVID-19 numbers, the interviews with lawmakers and the warnings from Dr. Anthony Fauci to overtake CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Quite another for all those updates to find their way onto ESPN.

It was a sign that the steadily streaming loop of games we play, and watch – games that have been played amid crisis, in the aftermath of catastrophe and that even resumed less than a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- could no longer be taken for granted. For the first time in anyone’s memory, sports were as much at the mercy of an uncontrolled, unpredictable and ever-changing health crisis as any other segment of life.

A year after the worldwide coronavirus pandemic stopped all the games in their tracks, the aftershocks are still being felt across every sector.

It’s true in the pros and colleges, where leagues and conferences found themselves scrambling to figure out how to resume in bubbles, pods and cohorts. Once jam-packed, stadiums are now being used as mass vaccination venues or, in cases where they’ve reopened their gates to significant numbers of fans, scapegoated as potential superspreader sites. The goal of it all is a return to something resembling “normal,” to get back to providing the masses with the programming they sorely missed while still accounting for the high risk the players take for the sake of our round-the-clock entertainment (and, yes, their millions in salaries and profit).

It‘s also true at the grassroots, where little leagues, swim teams, gymnastics camps and running clubs all went dark, leaving the very existence of their businesses, to say nothing of the sports they fortify from the ground all the way to the elite and Olympic levels, up in the air.

And at the outdoor playgrounds and courts and courses, which were shuttered, roped off and padlocked for weeks, sometimes months, before slowly gaining cachet as a new, somewhat safer haven for millions of restless citizens shut in by government mandate, or fear, or concern, or some combination of the three.

Some of what was lost, or stopped, has come back over the ensuing 12 months, with the rapid development of a vaccine and a sometimes-begrudging acceptance of mask-wearing and social distancing becoming norms that are now being relaxed in certain parts of the U.S. In many cases, lessons learned in sports have been applied to society in general, and helped make things better. The NFL, for instance, offered a veritable instruction manual for bringing large groups back into the workplace. (You must have resources, however.)

But the sporting life at all these levels does not look the same, and some of it might never look “normal” again.

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