With no sports, there's a void

Monday, April 13, 2020 - 1:44pm

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Illustration by Michelle Fan

On March 11, I sat in my small, dimly-lit apartment watching ESPN as footage came in of health officials sprinting out onto the court of Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, setting off a delay. Minutes earlier there was no official explanation for the delay to the start of Jazz vs. Thunder, but now there was — Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. 

Sports actualized the threat of COVID-19 to the American public. After the chaos in Oklahoma City, numerous leagues across the globe, like the Big Ten and the Premier League, made plans to move forward and hold games without fans. One scene made me realize that sports would not be able to go on: the image of Nebraska men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg. In an early round of Big Ten Tournament play, Hoiberg sat on the sidelines, visibly ill. Sweat poured from his forehead as he was doubled over on the bench, clearly not feeling well. The assistant to his left put on hand sanitizer. Twitter was ablaze with fans questioning why Hoiberg was on the court, seemingly putting his team and others in danger. While he eventually did not test positive for COVID-19, the scene of him interacting with players and referees while visibly ill left a collective thought: What the hell is he doing out there? What the hell are we doing, letting him be out there?

As a fan of European soccer, I saw the sporting world’s first response to COVID-19 a week earlier. Serie A, the Italian soccer league, initially moved to play “behind closed doors” — no fans, just teams and media. League leaders Juventus met challengers Inter Milan at an empty Allianz Stadium. The eerie shouts of jubilation rang out from the Juventus bench as Argentinian forward Pablo Dybala scored a second goal to seal the win for the Old Lady. 

Days later in England, the same day as the incident with Gobert, Liverpool Football Club attempted to come back against Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League tie. Anfield, the home of the Reds, was packed to the gills and filled with song. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp walked on to the pitch, greeted by fans putting their hands out to get a last-minute high-five. Klopp, normally one of the most friendly and flamboyant figures in world soccer, shouted at the fans, “Put your hands away you f*cking idiots!” Watching the video back, it’s obvious that Klopp was seething. As COVID-19 began to engulf Europe, Klopp knew holding a game was, as he described it, “criminal.”

I held out hope. I hoped the University of Michigan’s men’s basketball team would be able to make a run in the NCAA tournament, even with no fans. I prayed that Chelsea Football Club, my team, would be able to play their next Premier League match against Aston Villa. I looked forward to the Masters with optimism, hoping to see Tiger Woods defend his title — Surely it will be over by then, I thought. 

Now, it’s April 15, 2020, and a return of sports seems distant. A return of sports with packed stadiums feels near impossible. Who would’ve thought that my last game at The Big House might be the last one for years, not months?

To many, and to me early on, sports seemed immune to the virus. Games and matches could continue on, without fans if needed. Athletes with their health and physical ability could push through any infection. With over 604,000 cases in the United States as of April 14, it’s clear nothing is immune to COVID-19. Schools, restaurants and small businesses are all shuttered. This spring, it’s guaranteed there won’t be any rabid crowds of Michigan fans on South University Avenue celebrating a trip to the Final Four, no matter how slim the chances already were. 

Moments of joyous celebration like when the University reached the National Championship in 2018 showcases the feeling of community triumph created by sports. Now, charging out of the Blue Leprechaun onto the street to celebrate victory seems unimaginable. In times like these, with people dying from COVID-19 at alarming rates each day, with people shuttered in their homes and away from loved ones, that common thrill and excitement that sports bring is needed — something communities across the country can root for and unite behind is needed.

Even in times of violence and terror, sports were there. Mere weeks after 9/11, then-President George W. Bush strode out onto the field at Game 3 of the World Series in the Bronx, donning a Fire Department of New York jacket and delivered a first pitch straight down the middle. Say what you will about the damn New York Yankees and say what you will about George W. Bush, but that first pitch in 2001 offered the same unity we could use now. It offered something we could rally behind and get away from the realities of everyday life — distract from the horrors and tragedy wrought. I’m not old enough to remember the moment live, but watching it again on Youtube, quarantined in my apartment, there is an undeniable energy of optimism and strength to move forward. 

Our country can only dream of a moment like that now. We cannot gather in a stadium to heal together, and to parallel Bush’s Fire Department of New York jacket — a symbol recognizing our collective strength and pride — the present-day jacket would have to be a bit larger to accommodate the doctors, nurses, caregivers, grocery store workers, postal workers and more who have sacrificed in this widespread battle against this virus.

For some, the virus denies a stalwart of everyday life. In most of my waking moments of the year that were not spent in class or with other people, I listened to soccer podcasts — Men in Blazers, Talking Tactics, London is Blue Podcast, the Football Daily, to name a few. Now, with virtually all sports canceled indefinitely, I no longer get to wake up at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to watch the Premier League. I didn’t get to make a bracket for the NCAA Tournament. I didn’t get to watch the Masters on my computer in class on Thursday and Friday. It seems juvenile, and to a degree it is, but the shared adoration for something that transcends boundaries of politics, race, nationality and religion isn’t replicable. That adoration seems normal until we step back and see the uniqueness of it — so many of us distract ourselves in the same way through sports.

There’s also something to be said for the most vulnerable populations being robbed of seeing their teams succeed. My great-grandfather Richard Robinson, better known as Pop to his loved ones, lived his whole life in Massachusetts and always rooted for the Boston Red Sox. When the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series and broke the Curse of the Bambino, Pop witnessed it all. The following year, he passed away at the age of 93. A pennant from that year hangs in my childhood room to this day. 

There were similar stories when the Chicago Cubs won in 2016. Those moments of jubilation and the moments of relief and celebration might not come for fans for some time in the wake of COVID-19. Liverpool haven’t won a league title in England in 30 years. As things stand in the Premier League table, Liverpool are only a couple wins away from clinching their title that has seemed inevitable since December. No one knows when, or if, they will be able to resume their march to glory. Some supporters will likely have to spend another year waiting for their triumph.

For all the virtues of sports and my love for them, I do not advocate for their imminent return. Those who are pushing to return to sports soon are kidding themselves and endangering both fans and athletes. At this point, I don’t think there will be another Saturday at The Big House with 100,000 fans until there is an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. Sports might be what the country needs, but they are not what it deserves. Whenever sports return with fans in seats, it will undoubtedly be a special moment — a true mark of victory. With any hope, fans can sit in the sun, take in a game and recognize those who sacrificed and saved to get us back to what we crave right now: safety, normalcy and peace.