Roundtable: One Year of Sports and the Coronavirus

Lasting impressions and painful takeaways from an events calendar that turned page after page during a pandemic, for better or worse.
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We’ve seen fake fans, heard canned cheers and waved goodbye to handshakes. We found new places to play, new ways to watch and huddled in our pods to view an old dude transmitting from his basement. (How apocalyptic was that?) One year into this pandemic, we asked our writers: What, so far, has stood out to you the most?

THE STUFFY OLD MASTERS TEACH US TO CHILL | By Michael Rosenberg
I will remember the cellphones at Augusta National in November. One rang—rang, not buzzed—by the 18th green. Another was pulled out by a well-known member just off the 17th green. This would be typical behavior just about anywhere else in the world, but Augusta National views cellphones like most of the world’s problems: We know they exist … but this is not the place for them. And yet, in 2020, the usual rules did not apply.

There are two pandemic stories: The lives that ended, which number too many, and the lives that changed, which include all of us. COVID-19 has forced us to pause and think about what matters and what doesn’t. In our little sports corner of the world, we realized what we do need (Crowds, please!) and what we don’t. We do not need to gather in one room to hold a draft. NFL teams do not need nearly as many offseason activities as coaches claim. College football programs do not need to schedule games 73 years in advance. So many of the rules and regulations we accepted for years are silly, and while I actually like the no-cellphone rule, it was fitting for 2020.

Augusta National is a storied golf course that does a magnificent job of hosting an incredibly enjoyable event. The institutional self-importance is unnecessary. Augusta National does not need to take itself so seriously, and that sentiment applies to 98% of the sports world. These games are supposed to be fun. I hope the next crowd that packs a full stadium remembers that.

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HOW WOMEN’S SOCCER GOT US BACK | By Julie Kliegman
It’s impossible to talk about the (sloppy, ongoing) return of sports without mentioning the NWSL’s Challenge Cup, which marked the first major step back in U.S. team sports after the March 2020 shutdown. I spent June and July glued to the tournament, which (with one Orlando Pride–size caveat) went smoothly: zero players on-site tested positive for COVID-19. The final, where the Houston Dash bested the Chicago Red Stars, drew a league-record 653,000 viewers on CBS.

Also, the tournament was freakin’ fun. The love-to-hate-’em North Carolina Courage (whose level of talent is just unfair, with Crystal Dunn, Debinha and Lynn Williams) were upset in the quarterfinals by the Portland Thorns. And while big names like Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan opted out, that void made room for other stars to shine. In particular, we were blessed by the Dash’s fiery goal-scoring duo of Shea Groom and Rachel Daly (tournament MVP), Thorns powerhouse Lindsey Horan and slippery Spirit midfielder Rose Lavelle, to name a few.

And the memes. Oh, the memes. The Challenge Cup playground, just beyond the field at Rio Tinto Stadium, became a collective obsession. (Would anyone celebrate a goal by zipping down the slide? Answer: not in-game, unfortunately.) The daily sun glare took on a life of its own. Most importantly, I learned that I am the Alyssa Naeher of my friend group.

The Cup is set to return April 9, in home markets, not a bubble, so it’s bound to be a dicier endeavor. But with the extremely 2020–21 disclaimers that this event probably shouldn’t be happening at all, and that I’ll feel queasy every time I enjoy myself: Bring on the soccer.

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BOOMER IN A BASEMENT: MUST-SEE TV | By Conor Orr
Remember when we were all invited into Roger Goodell’s wood-paneled basement for the NFL Draft, last April, just as the reality of the pandemic seemed to be setting in? Gone were the prepandemic plans for a glitzy Las Vegas event, with draftees being zipped out to an island podium via speedboat, the kind of oversaturated, sugar-stuffed indulgences the league has become known for. And yet, for the lot of us, the eventual quarantine-driven broadcast evoked some sense of normalcy. The show was a cornucopia of football-analysis banalities mixed with the occasional horrifying story of some poor youth’s childhood. In other words: business as usual. Goodell, stretching for sponsorship opportunities, shamelessly pawed at a jar of M&M’s and we all pretended the world was O.K. for a minute, even as several of the prospects’ in-home cameras captured maskless agents shoving their faces into the frame. Had they quarantined before this? Are they really going to hug each other? So many unspoken questions ...

And so began our strange, interpersonal tug-of-ethical-war with the league. Like a vice we knew we should kick, it still made us feel good, akin to that tumbler of Johnnie Walker that accompanied some of us during the evening. (No? Not you? Huh.) These draft prospects would soon join a professional cattle herd of athletes flying across the country during a pandemic, practicing within close quarters of one another, breathing on one another without masks and meeting together in small rooms before returning to their normal lives at night. They, too, were beginning their own moral and ethical battles.

The draft was a glimpse of what was possible during the most horrifying stretch of time in modern U.S. history, and the Emmys and other award shows largely followed in the league’s cleated footsteps. On the NFL calendar, the draft is that time when hope springs anew and fans begin dreaming of a thrilling season ahead. This year, it was just about a distraction to get through the day. Anything that was not Jeopardy!


WAITIN' ALL DAY FOR WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON  | By Mitch Goldich
It was a historic year for the particular genre of fun facts centered around things happening at bizarre times. Granted, fun fact is a bit of a misnomer given the circumstances.

The NFL schedule proved to be at once an immovable object, barreling ahead at all costs, and a malleable piece of clay, open to contortion, so long as we ram 256 games into 17 weeks. Nothing drove that point home quite like the Week 12 meeting between the Ravens and Steelers in Pittsburgh. Originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night, it was moved out of the premier time slot because a double-digit number of Ravens players tested positive for COVID-19. Then it was moved to Sunday. Then Tuesday. Then, finally, Wednesday, Dec. 2 … at 3:40 p.m.

If Carrie Underwood has never sang about Waitin’ all day for Wednesday afternoon, it’s only because we didn’t know it was possible for a Hump Day afternoon tilt to break up the work-from-home week.

Because the league had already played its typical Sunday, Monday and Thursday games; along with the usual late-season Saturday games and some previously rescheduled Tuesday games; plus the two games scheduled for Christmas Day, a Friday; Wednesday football officially sealed a 2020 day-of-the-week bingo—a game played on each day of the week, across the course of the season—a first for the NFL. Why 3:40 p.m., though? NBC didn’t want to overshawdow its famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting that evening. Of course.

The whole ordeal encapsulated everything about the unique 2020 schedule madness. Health and safety mattered … to a point. Competitive balance mattered … when it could. But concerns about potential soft-tissue injuries or different teams’ outbreaks being handled differently were overruled because we had to get all the games in. And, most importantly: The TV networks—the actual paying customers—are really in charge.

As for the game itself, the shorthanded Ravens played without reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. His backup, Robert Griffin III, got hurt, leaving things in the hands of Trace McSorley. A spirited comeback effort fell short and the Steelers won 19–14. It was exciting football, if not the NFL product at its best.

Did I mention: That Rockefeller Christmas tree ended up being mocked, deemed ugly? Yep, 2020 in a nutshell.

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A LEAGUE LOCKED IN ARMS | By Michael Pina
I don’t remember who the first NBA player was to participate in a peaceful protest after George Floyd was killed. For so many of them, engaging with the wave of exasperation that swept over a nation already consumed by a pandemic was instinctual, demonstrating an indelible desire to be foot soldiers in a battle that 75% of them have directly fought their entire lives.

There was the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, tweeting during a 15-hour drive from Boston to Atlanta to organize and amplify his own demonstration. Hundreds were by his side—including the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon and the Nets’ Justin Anderson—calling for racial equality. There was the Blazers’ Damian Lillard, one voice in a chorus of “I Can’t Breathe” chants, locked in arms on the streets of Portland.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Sterling Brown, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Steph Curry, Lonzo Ball, Jordan Clarkson, Tobias Harris and so many others were walking, shouting, evincing their anguish. Some players, including Bradley Beal, publicly shared stories about their own confrontations in the past with police. Numerous WNBA players joined them, continuing their own commitment to effecting change by dedicating their 2020 season to social justice. Natasha Cloud protested in Philadelphia, Sydney Colson marched in Houston, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd spoke at a rally in Seattle.

In normal times, all these players would’ve been competing against one another. But COVID-19 brought the NBA to a halt last March. For that stretch, where society at large was on pause, professional basketball felt like an institution that belonged to a different universe. The players’ actions were powerful and sobering, and when the Bucks decided not to compete in a postseason game against the Magic a couple of months later, it reminded us again of the unique role Black athletes play in a society that can sit in awe of their superhuman talents while too often refusing to believe they’re vulnerable victims of prejudice.

NBA players didn’t solve 400 years of racial tyranny by taking to the streets, but their involvement was a small step in the right direction, at a time when such a thing felt more necessary than it ought to be.


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TENNIS: GLOBAL VILLAGE TO TOWER OF BABEL | By Jon Wertheim
If you were seeding tennis’ virtues, its relentlessly global nature might be tops. Here is a sport that mocks borders and time zones and regionalism. Players think nothing of jetting from Dubai to Mumbai to Shanghai, on a circuit that threads the globe. There are currently players from six continents in the highest ranks. The best male star at the moment, Novak Djokovic, is a Serbian who resides in Monaco, speaks unflawed English and has won the majority of his Major titles in Australia. The best women’s player, Naomi Osaka, is a Japanese-Haitian alloy, raised in Florida and now based in L.A.

But in pandemic times, this asset was a brutal liability, a global village turned into a tower of Babel. Different players from different places with different pandemic protocol, all jetting to one location where hundreds of competitors share a single locker room. Not exactly COVID-19-friendly. While other sports were Zooming, tennis was on mute. The tours suspended activity for months. Those few unsanctioned events that did go on? They did not (understatement) cover the sport in glory. Meanwhile, tennis’ family secrets (income inequality; the financial struggles of lower players; the hegemony of the four Majors; the unhealthily high amount of revenue generated by ticket sales, rather than through media rights) were exposed.

But—a distillation of the sport more generally—tennis ultimately prevailed. During the Year of the Coronavirus, three of the four Majors were, eventually, held. (The lone cancellation, Wimbledon, cashed in a pandemic insurance policy and shared its bounty with competitors.) When the players emerged from hibernation, they generally comported themselves like responsible adults, and there were blessedly few positive tests. For all the time off amid uncertainty, neither the players’ conditioning nor their level of play appeared to suffer much. Funneling a cast from all over the world to one site has been a challenge. Prize money has dwindled, reflecting the diminution (and sometimes total absence) of fans. Players have sometimes had to quarantine in their hotel rooms before competitions. But the show has gone on. The best of players have, by and large, continued winning. And soon, tennis’ internationalism will again look like a voguish sign of health, not a concern for sickness.

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NO GAMES? WELL, FISH GOTTA SWIM ... | By Pat Forde
Watching the world’s greatest female breaststroker squish through a muddy field toward a neighborhood pond last May in Bloomington, Ind., brought home the surreal nature of an Olympic year without an Olympics. When Lilly King was training alongside snapping turtles, snakes and small fish, we were symbolically as far as humanly possible from Tokyo.

For a dozen excruciating days, every aspiring Olympian was in a panicked state of limbo: The sports world had shut down on March 11, but the games were still on schedule right up until March 24. In that time, with training venues closing and anxiety spiking, athletes were doing anything they could to stay ready for the chance of a lifetime. Even after the Games were officially postponed until July 2021, training options remained extremely limited—especially for swimmers. University pools and other major aquatic venues everywhere were closed, many of them for months at a time.

Which is why King (and other Olympians training at Indiana University) wound up working out for several weeks in a pond. And why superstars Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel did their laps in a backyard pool in Palo Alto, Calif. And why Olympian Kelsi Dahlia attached herself to harnesses in a 12-by-nine-foot portable pool in her Louisville backyard. Whatever it took to maintain some semblance of the immense workload swimmers customarily endure. Fish gotta swim.

By the time we reach the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, in June, we’ll get a good idea how well America’s best and brightest swimmers endured a year from hell. Then the ultimate test will come in Tokyo, a month later. If all goes well for Lilly King & Co., they can thank the snapping turtles and snakes and fish for being such good training partners during the worst of times.


UFC RULES THE ISLAND | By Jon Wertheim
All arms, legs and bodies pressed together, mixed martial arts might be—with one notable exception—the most intimate act between two people. At a minimum, MMA fighting mocks the concept of social distancing, all that proximity plus all those bodily fluids. Nevertheless, MMA persisted. And among the various sports leagues, the UFC may well have emerged as the undisputed champion of this pandemic.

By March 14, 2020, COVID-19 was gaining momentum. Its spread had already caused the NBA to lock down, MLB to suspend spring training activity and March Madness to cancel entirely. Yet that night the UFC held Fight Night 170, a full card staged inside an arena in Brazil, and with the absence of alternatives the event drew an inordinate viewership. Less than two months later, the UFC was at it again, this time staging cards from Jacksonville. No fans were in the stands—which made for an arresting soundtrack when firsts collided with flesh—but again, the pay-per-view audience came in droves. Less than two months after that, the UFC had migrated overseas, holding cards in the Middle East on what was called Fight Island. Comedians, most notably John Oliver, had a field day, roasting the entire concept: “Is it the perfect name? Yes. Because it’s the first thought an idiot would have if they wanted to name a private island where fights happen.”

UFC, though, had the last laugh, staging card after card on Fight Island while other sports sank. In fairness, it's easier for a league office to manipulate (or entirely circumvent?) COVID-19 protocol when there’s no union representing its athletes. When the few athletes who do test positive can simply be replaced. When your sport’s king of kings, Dana White, is a Trump-backing Libertarian, never confused for an empathic type. Still, befitting a sport that never messed around much with rules, it was instructive to see the UFC first answer the air horn … then survive and advance.


FEEL THE NOISE! (OR DON’T) | By Emma Baccellieri 
One of the first things that struck me about the return of sports last summer was that there was no good way to fill a stadium without fans. If you stayed fixated on the action—and most television cameras did—you could almost convince yourself that what you were watching was normal. But zoom out just a little and it was distressingly, absurdly futile to try maintaining that illusion. There was no way to get around the obvious: This was weird. The cardboard cutouts could only ever feel like, well, cardboard—disturbingly two-dimensional, giving off a cemetery vibe when viewed from behind. The stuffed animals were always a bit creepy. The computer-generated fans tried by some TV networks were fine. Kind of. Until you watched a foul ball zoom right through a torso.

This was eerie on TV—but even more so, I discovered, when witnessed from a press box. The mascot danced for no one. The jumbotron blared its usual commands—Get up! Make some noise! Clap your hands!—to an audience that would never engage. Even with the video game soundtrack of “crowd” noise provided by a stadium operator, bits of conversation could travel across the field, and the whole place echoed. My first game of pandemic-ball was the “home opener” of the Toronto Blue Jays, which was moved to Washington, D.C., because MLB had not been cleared to play in Canada. (What’s “home” without fans, anyway?) When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. came to the plate in a tie ball game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a hype video played on the screen and the soundtrack ratcheted its cheers up higher, but the energy that would typically accompany those sights and sounds never came.

It all underscored a point that, while easily pushed out of the frame on TV, could not be ignored in real life: None of this was normal. The least dystopian way to treat a stadium under these circumstances was perhaps the only honest one: seats left empty, untouched, waiting.