The Games Will Return


My freshman year in high school, a meningitis scare consumed my little hometown of Northfield, Vermont. Two students had contracted bacterial meningitis — scarier, deadlier than the viral strain — and the entire student body gathered in the gym one morning for vaccination shots. No chances would be taken.

This happened in late winter and it cost our basketball team a chance to play in the state tournament, one they'd qualified for over a 20-game regular season. This didn't impact me directly, as I was a jayvee player at the time. But when the ban — of our team, and only our team — was announced, we freshmen saw seniors cry. That's not something in the playbook for high school sports. For those seniors — Northfield High School, Class of '84 — basketball was over. And not with a season-ending loss, but the casualty of a health crisis.

My empathy gene has been in overdrive, of course, as mankind reacts and attempts to manage the pandemic we'll remember as coronavirus, COVID-19. And it's been especially triggered by what amounts to a cancellation of sporting life in America. We are social creatures, we humans. We thrive on community, on being part of something shared. No endeavor delivers this better than sports, whether you are making a tee time with three of your best pals, cheering your daughter on a softball field, or screaming at your television as your March Madness bracket catches fire with another unforeseen upset. Millions upon millions of moments — the NCAA tournament has always shortchanged itself with "One Shining Moment" — have been lost to this health crisis, the number growing with every day of dark arenas and empty stadiums.

Thousands of college seniors will not play their final baseball game, won't have a Senior Day for one last picture with their proud parents and siblings. My own daughter — a high school senior — wonders if she'll throw another pitch for her softball team. These are moments — slices of time, really — that cannot be replicated later, "down the road" as we like to say. I remember my senior year of both high school and college in much the way I remember my wedding day and the births of my children. Singular. Profound. Both beginning and end as one.

Professional sports will return. They are businesses with a sound revenue model. The NBA Finals will be played again. Leagues, both professional and amateur, have made the right decision in shutting things down until humanity regains the advantage over COVID-19. We've been reminded — by the broadest collective fear of my lifetime — that the human race is not impervious to a natural enemy, particularly a kind that can't be seen, heard, or felt. When will this global scare subside? When can players return to the games they play? That is the scariest component of it all, because no one knows.

I've been asked — on talk radio and by my children — how best to handle the current horror story we're living. The best tip I humbly offer: stay away from anger. Amid all the negative emotions we suffer, anger is the least productive. Manage sorrow the best you can. Empathize for those who have lost moments they'd long anticipated (like all those senior athletes). But don't let anger tighten your breath or cloud your gathering of information that will help us find normal again.

The games will return. And we'll appreciate them more than we did before COVID-19 entered the room. Because we'll recognize they're not a given. Sports are a luxury, maybe the most valuable luxury we know. What I'd give for the "heartbreak" of seeing my daughter's softball team lose a big game. It's just a game? Sure. It also happens to be life as we know it. Or at least life as we remember it. 

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