Sports Are Usually a Great Escape. Not This Time.

Soon, there won’t be anyone left in the stands, or on the court. Photo: Kyle Phillips/AP

After that harrowing, disorienting, absolutely unforgettable 20-minute stretch during which the president mumbled garbled lies and inaccuracies from a teleprompter, the NBA season was suspended after All-Star Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with COVID-19 mere minutes before his team was supposed to take the floor and Tom fucking Hanks announced that he and his wife Rita Wilson had the virus … I desperately wanted to escape into a basketball game. I needed to get away.

Any basketball game would do. In my case, it was St. Peter’s versus Iona, a quarterfinal matchup of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament in Atlantic City. It was a meaningless contest between two middling teams, without a single player I’d ever heard of. I have no connection to the schools, had no money riding on the outcome, honestly do not care one whit about either side in any way whatsoever. And yet I watched the game like it was the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and The Bachelor finale all in one. When St. Peter’s Aaron Estrada, a teenage freshman majoring in graphic design, drained a jump shot with less than one second remaining to give the Peacocks the win, I leapt off the couch screaming. I damn near burst into tears.

As we remember in the aftermath of every national tragedy, sports exist to distract us from our everyday problems. They’re like real life, simplified and sped up. We sit for three hours to watch our favorite teams: If they win, we are happy, and if they lose, we are sad. For those three hours, we’re not worried about our job security, our mortgage, our family’s health, or anything that actually matters. We just get to escape. This is healthy, I’d argue. Sports can be a way to get out emotions that are otherwise unacceptable to express. Put it this way: The only things that make me spontaneously get up and yell at the top of my lungs are sports, and maybe a spider. You can lose your mind about sports because they don’t actually make any difference in the grand scheme of things. Which is of course why they’re so important.

But watching that St. Peter’s–Iona game felt like more than just escapism. It felt like I was saying good-bye.

Last night, after the Gobert news, the NBA suspended its season and quarantined several of the teams that had recently played against the Jazz, including the Knicks. This was an unprecedented move that was just the beginning. On Thursday, most college basketball conference tournaments were canceled in the span of a few minutes — coming on the heels of an incident Wednesday night, at the Big Ten Tournament, where Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg was so visibly ill on the sideline that he had to leave the game early. It turns out that he just had the flu rather than the coronavirus — it’s impressive that the Big Ten Tournament has testing kids so handy, by the way. But it was only a matter of time until a player or a coach or a referee or someone involved with the game contracted the virus. To keep on playing was untenable. One look to the South Korean KBL basketball league tells you why: They tried it, and it lasted exactly three days. All it took was one team staying at the same hotel as someone who tested positive, and they immediately shut it all down. The league has not resumed play two weeks later; they’re going to try to start back up on March 29, but that, like everything else, is up in the air.

The NCAA Tournament, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, seems in mortal peril. Charles Barkley, one of the tournament’s studio hosts, said this morning it should be canceled; I’d be actively surprised if a single game is played. Major League Baseball’s season begins two weeks from today, but already games in Seattle and Oakland are being moved; postponing is inevitable, and a month might not be nearly enough. What is typically the busiest part of the sports calendar is about to go dark.

As I mentioned earlier this week, money is part of the reason sports have been slow to cancel games, but it’s more than just that. There’s also historical precedent; not canceling an NCAA Tournament simply because it’s never been done before is reason enough for many sports fans.  Sports are about continuation, about knowing who won the World Series in 1967, or the Super Bowl XX, or the NCAA Tournament in 2005. People have been invested in these seasons for months, years, and letting them go is incredibly difficult. There’s also the brevity of athlete’s careers to consider. Canceling a tournament or season may seem like no big deal to a non-sports fan, but for the players and coaches and everyone putting their blood and sweat and souls into every game, it is beyond devastating. There will be another NCAA Tournament … but not for them.

None of that makes any difference during a global pandemic, obviously, which is why it’s all about to go away. Maybe the leagues will make up these games and maybe they won’t. But the reason sports mean so much to so many people is precisely why they have to be shut down right now; we love them because they don’t really matter, and there is no time to risk for things that do not matter. Sports are a luxury we cannot afford at the moment. There are people who understand that, and people who refuse to.

I want to watch sports right now. I have been waiting seven years for my beloved Illinois Fighting Illini to finally make the NCAA Tournament, and this year’s team, one that has provided me so much joy, had already locked down a bid. But I’m also scared. I’m scared for my wife and my sons, for my parents, for everyone I know, for Tom fucking Hanks. I want to escape that fear the way I usually do: by hiding and taking in a game. But already that kind of solace feels like — as with everything else right now — something from a different era. Which is why I watched that St. Peter’s–Iona game like it was the last basketball game I’d ever witness. That escapism is fleeting. That escape is almost gone, and it may be a long time until it comes back. Maybe it’s not a time for escapism. Maybe it’s time to face what’s here.

Sports Are Usually a Great Escape. Not This Time.