Facebook Twitter

In sports, the grip of coronavirus extends beyond games and athletes

After the events holding the sports industry together were canceled, questions about its future stability emerged

SHARE In sports, the grip of coronavirus extends beyond games and athletes
merlin_659320.jpg

Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert, bottom, knocks the ball away from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Alec Burks, top, in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Cleveland.

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus diagnosis took a defibrillator to the nation’s apathy, jolting Americans into confronting the serious public health threat posed by COVID-19. And that’s probably, as argued by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, a good thing. Along with subsequent prominent infections, like Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant’s detection on Tuesday, Gobert forced a national reckoning. But said reckoning — the one that closed the NBA, canceled the NCAA Tournament and delayed baseball’s opening day — has also cracked the foundation of the sports industry. 

Without these seemingly trivial contests, where participants whack leather balls with wooden sticks or smack pucks up and down the ice, the entire industry built around them — the people who make the arenas functional, who write about the games, who televise them, who sell tickets and coordinate interviews and opine on them day and night — is suddenly left to wonder. When can fans and players expect their careers and catharsis, respectively, to return? What’s a tuition-owing Philadelphia Phillies ball girl to do without the paycheck she was expecting?

So regardless of their surface-level triviality, “these are serious times” for sports, observed New York Times sports reporter John Branch, “even without the fear of becoming sick.” Indeed, amid unprecedented mass cancellations, every sports-adjacent organization in the country must adjust — quickly — to address the suddenly compromised foundation of the industry, hoping their base is strong enough to weather the earthquake of uncertainty.

“I’ve probably heard the term ‘indefinitely suspended’ more in the last 36 hours than I’ve heard it in the rest of my lifetime,” Utah State athletics director John Hartwell said Friday, highlighting the sudden cancellation cascade. “That speaks to how it’s a fluid situation.”

The floodgates opened last week. 

On Wednesday night, Southern Utah University athletics spokesman Bryson Lester waited in the lobby of the Boise Hyatt as TVs blared with video of Gobert. The Jazz center’s diagnosis had just become public knowledge, and the Thunderbirds felt the jolt. By 9 p.m., a meeting convened with Lester, athletics director Debbie Corum and other senior department officials. They’d monitored the coronavirus before, but now they needed to take action. They focused on what drew them to Boise: The Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament. Should it be canceled, they decided how they’d get home, and Lester drafted a press release to keep fans apprised. 

“Obviously, that press release was updated 30 times over the next 12 hours,” Lester said. “Then we posted it, and two hours later, it was out of date again.”

About 12 hours after their meeting, the NCAA canceled all basketball tournaments as well as spring sports, and after breaking the news to the team, Southern Utah was on a bus headed for Cedar City by noon. Like for many other programs — high school, college and professional alike — that’s when real uncertainty crept in, even if the virus had been noted before. 

Like in the Mountain West Conference, which hosted its men’s basketball tournament a week earlier than most. Utah State won on a game-winning shot from senior Sam Merrill, clinching a spot (or so it thought) in the NCAA Tournament. But despite the euphoria of the upset win, Hartwell also left Las Vegas with the coronavirus on his mind. 

It was discussed, he said, at a meeting of the conference’s athletics directors, where the consensus seemed to be that something might need to be done. But nothing was imminent, he acknowledged, and “it was still in the back of our minds.”

Until Wednesday, when his department joined SUU and others in wondering how they’d keep fans engaged and maintain their staffs. What kinds of connections could they forge without games, for example, and what will communications interns do when they normally write press releases and coordinate interviews for their assigned teams? 

Hartwell suggested there’s still plenty of human interest storytelling to be done, like about what Merrill must be feeling after the boom of a last-second conference crown followed by the sudden bust of his career ending. And Lester said he jotted down potential tasks in his phone’s notes app. 

“We’ve got interns and hourly employees, and we want to keep them getting paid, obviously,” he said. “I’ve been putting some ideas down for things we can do to get ahead for next season. So right now, we’re just looking forward, looking ahead, getting some player bios updated on the website, and going from there.”

But it’s unclear how long it’ll take for such stories and tasks to dry up. And for some, there’s no escape from financial consequences. Arena workers, for one, have little hope of making the money they expected and planned their lives around. Some professional basketball players, from Cleveland’s Kevin Love to New Orleans’ Zion Williamson to Gobert, have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover their lost salaries, and more seem to be following their lead each day, but some in the industry remain beyond such help. 

Like sports reporters, who can’t take money from the teams they cover. For now, they’ll likely take Hartwell’s approach of tackling human interest stories, investigations and other non-gamecentric forms of reporting.

“I know sports might not seem so important right now, but we at (The Athletic) are going to keep trying our best not only to inform you of what’s going on, but also to bring you stories that hopefully distract you a bit and make you smile,” tweeted The Athletic’s New Orleans Saints reporter Katherine Terrell. “Got some good ideas coming up.”

But if sports disappear for several months, such material is bound to run thin. Especially at a place like The Athletic, which has a beat writer covering just about every professional and college team in the country. Without their usual story tinder, reporters covering Purdue athletics or the Phoenix Suns will need to get extra creative with little inspiration or precedence. Like Hartwell said, the situation is fluid, and there’s no guidebook. So for now, the sports industry seems intent on putting out fires where they flare up. 

Hartwell said, for example, that some of Utah State’s international athletes have inquired about returning to their countries to wait out the pandemic. He’s also thought about how to handle coaches and department staffers who need to stay home with their kids amid school closures, and athletes who may need support. 

“When you think about those seniors, who’ve worked a lifetime for their competitions and had it taken away from them, it’s tough,” he said. “And we have got to make sure that we take care of those young men and women, because it’s going to be a mental health challenge.”

Such questions will sustain the industry for a while. 

“There’s going to be a lot to do,” Lester said, “just because this is so new.”

But salaries can’t be covered by donations forever, and there’s only so much tidying to do, and so much content available in a media ecosystem where even pre-coronavirus, every cheeky tweet qualified as newsworthy. Eventually, a damaged foundation can’t support all that weight. 

The longer the cancellations last, then, the more dangerous the cracks.