Every now and then, a date of significance is seared into our collective brain.
March 12, 2020, was added to that shortlist when nearly every major athletic league in the country battened down the hatches in the path of an approaching storm dubbed COVID-19.
A few hours earlier, the coronavirus was but a vague possibility in the minds of most Americans, despite news of the toll it had taken on Italy in the preceding weeks. As of noon on March 11, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention was reporting just over 1,200 confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide.
That all changed with a single tweet from The Athletic writer Shams Charania: “Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert has tested positive for coronavirus …”
The news came moments before the 9:30 p.m. scheduled tip-off between the Jazz and Thunder in Oklahoma City. The game was promptly canceled, and minutes later, the entire NBA season was suspended indefinitely.
Everyone else fell in line the next day.
The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and La Liga had postponed competition before most Americans finished their morning cup of coffee. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), International Tennis Federation (ITF) and Major League Soccer (MLS) suspended play by lunchtime.
Then came the big blows. With the NCAA already resigned to hold March Madness without fans, every major conference canceled its respective basketball tournaments.
The rest of the dominoes continued to fall: the NHL suspended its season, the NFL canceled its annual league meetings, MLB terminated spring training. Before the end of the workday, the NCAA Tournament was officially canceled, as was every other winter and spring championship.
Suddenly, one of the most exciting times of the year for sports fans was snatched away and replaced with a crippling uncertainty that transcended the world of sports.
If the NCAA felt compelled to shut down March Madness in fear of the unknown virus, how could other businesses and organizations feel safe resuming operation? Thus began an unprecedented quarantine period in which the entire country locked the doors and shuttered the windows
But with more people at home than at any other time in modern history, the absence of athletics was glaring.
YouTube videos featuring marble races flooded the internet. ESPN aired the sign-spinning championship on “The Ocho.” The NBA held a HORSE challenge that made human history as the first event recorded on potatoes.
And, we watched all of it.
Of course, we’re a competitive nation. We love to see the best in their craft rewarded for their performance on the highest level. It was a temporary fix but perhaps an important one.
Once the silence from the major sporting leagues wasn’t quite so deafening, the real growth began. Sports is a distraction, but that’s not always a good thing.
We live in divisive times, but many Americans banded together in a way that’s generally been reserved for historic wartime efforts. Support for frontline responders rose once more, this time down to the cashier working the register in a picked over and frenzied supermarket.
We’ve also seen a renewed focus toward correcting racial injustices — one of which occurred right in our own backyard.
Ahmaud Arbery was murdered Feb. 23 in a now-infamous shooting in Satilla Shores. The case generated little news in the weeks that followed while it was passed on to different district attorneys.
It wasn’t until May 5, in the midst of quarantine, that a copy of the video was released and subsequently went viral, sparking national outrage at the gross miscarriage of justice. Not only did Arbery’s cousin Tracy Walker and other former Brunswick High football players Darius Slay and Justin Coleman sound off about their fellow former alumnus’ killing, prominent athletes from all over the country demanded action.
Superstars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Steph Curry, were just a few of the athletes to take to social media to voice support for Arbery. Tom Brady and Cam Jordan were among the members of the Players Coalition that signed a letter sent to Attorney General William Barr requesting a federal investigation into Arbery’s death.
Then there’s the local activism: peaceful protests to racial injustice, the football team Arbery once suited up for held a unity march to announce its commitment to trying to make changes for the better in the community. Brunswick High football players locked arms and marched the length of the field to signify togetherness.
Numerous athletes have donated meals and supplies to frontline workers. Namoi Osaka wore the name of a different victim of racial violence during each round of her run to her U.S. Open title. NBA players refused to compete in playoff games in protest of another police killing.
The important thing to remember here is this: nothing has to change now that most leagues have returned in one form or another. Instead, sports can be a platform to promote the changes we want to see to a wider audience.
We’ve learned from our hiatus, and we can continue to use that knowledge to truly change the game.