March Sadness In The Sports World
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — March Madness has changed to March Sadness, an unwitting victim of the spreading pandemic that is the coronavirus.
The Power 5 conferences all canceled their post-season basketball tournaments — that coming after they had announced that would be held in the almost eerie environment of massive arenas without fans, each dribble echoing through the rafters. It wasn’t long after that the NCAA cancelled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, then shut down all spring and summer championships.
The very event that defines March, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, is gone now. Can the event that defines April, the Masters, or the event that defines May, the Kentucky Derby, be far behind?
Baseball canceled the rest of its spring training today and pushed back its opening day.
Nothing is safe. St. Patrick’s Day already has seen the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade ditched. An event that often draws a million people is heading off into isolation.
And don’t think that it’s going to stop there.
Dare we think of America without sports, temporary though it is?
Blank sports pages? ESPN running test patterns? Stephen A. Smith with nothing to talk about, Joe Lunardi with nothing to seed but his garden?
This health emergency, of course, is far more important than carrying on the games people play, but that is not to downplay the importance sports are to the American culture, the American psyche.
There is talk of canceling the Tokyo Olympic Game this summer. The Olympics? Was there ever a more uplifting sports moment than the Miracle on Ice for the mood of America in the midst of the Cold War in 1980, or than Muhammad Ali standing atop the podium and lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996?
March, you know, is many things. It is a month of rebirth. Winter is over. Spring is beginning. There is a warmth in the air, trees are beginning to sprout their leaves, flowers are blooming … baseball is coming out of its winter hibernation and the NCAA holds its basketball tournament.
It is a month of robins and upsets.
It is hard to imagine going through the month of March without a bracket to fill out, without the first-round upsets and the great performances that make the NCAA Tournament the greatest sporting event we have, with all due apologies to the Super Bowl and the World Series.
That tournament lives off its Cinderellas, off its buzzer beaters, off an elderly nun inspiring her team to victory, off an all-black Texas Western team defeating an all-white Kentucky team and helping t0 end segregating in America at the height of the civil rights movement.
It is difficult to imagine how many people who don’t follow basketball fill out brackets and becoming dragged in as their utterly insane pick of this game or that game pulls off a stunning upset.
It’s not “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” Instead it’s “Down goes Duke!” or “Down goes Kentucky!”
Here in West Virginia we have tasted it both ways, Jarrod West’s prayer being answered to beat Bob Huggins when he was at Cincinnati to give Mountaineer fans their greatest thrill of victory and Kenton Paulino of Texas throwing in a half-court three atop a heroic game-tying 3-pointer by Kevin Pittsnogle to beat John Beilein’s Mountaineers at the buzzer.
Those events are the kinds of things that allow America to get through tough times, just as they are having now with the virus spreading and the stock market diving.
It has happened before. Franklin Delano Roosevelt opted to keep baseball going throughout World War II when there was a question whether everything should be directed toward the war effort. Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis had written the following to Roosevelt in 1942:
“If you believe we ought to close down for the duration of the war, we are ready to do so immediately. If you feel we ought to continue, we would be delighted to do so. We await your order.”
And Roosevelt replied:
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.
“And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.
“Here is another way of looking at it — if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”
Even the spread of disease has failed to stop our sports in the past.
Think to when the NBA was faced with a difficult decision when Magic Johnson announced he had contacted HIV. Opponents did not want to play against him and he retired in 1991, but played and starred in the All-Star game in 1992, then returned first as a coach and then as a player in 1996 before ending his career.
It was a warm story that helped chase away so many myths about AIDs and the HIV virus.
We are back there again and, if we must sacrifice the games we play to keep the public safe, it will be so, but the void will be far more of a vacuum than you may expect.