How COVID-19 led to the week the lights went out on sports

SALT LAKE CITY — How much will the novel coronavirus global pandemic impact the sports world in the long run?

It’s simply too soon to tell. One thing is for certain right now, though. The sports community — and humanity in general — is facing an unprecedented situation.

For now, the majority of athletic events — ranging from high school sports and college athletics up through the professional ranks — are either suspended or canceled altogether in the near future.

And in the United States, the world changed Wednesday night when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. In Utah, that impact has been felt across a wide spectrum in the sports world.

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder meets with Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan and officials before before an NBA basketball game was postponed in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. | Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman via AP

The Utah Jazz and the NBA at the forefront

The Jazz were set to face the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. Moments before tip-off, though, the game was stopped and later postponed. Soon thereafter, the NBA suspended its season after announcing a Jazz player — later identified as Gobert — had preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19.

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By the next morning, news surfaced that Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell had also tested positive. Teammate Emmanuel Mudiay, who like Gobert was ill on Wednesday, tested negative.

Signs warning of the coronavirus on the walls at Chesapeake Energy Arena during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. | Kyle Phillips, AP

Now, the NBA is in standby mode, as it takes the time and necessary steps to assess just how deep the COVID-19 issue is throughout the league. “This hiatus will last at least 30 days and we intend to resume the season, if and when it becomes safe for all concerned,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a letter penned to NBA fans Thursday.

Could it lead to the end of the season?

“Of course it’s possible,” Silver told TNT’s Ernie Johnson during an appearance on the cable channel Thursday. “I just don’t know more at this point. … We don’t know, so at this point we’re just waiting.”

For now, the health and well-being of those infected is at the forefront of concern. On Saturday, Mitchell provided an update on his status in a video through the NBA Twitter account, saying, “Just want to say thank you guys so much for your continued support. Man, it means a lot to me. I feel fine. Things are going well.”

Also on Saturday, the Jazz outlined how a $500,000 pledge from Gobert will go toward assisting arena employees and relief efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic. That came two days after the star center, who was shown on video playfully touching audio equipment at a Jazz press conference Monday morning, shared an apology on Instagram: “The first and most important thing is I would like to publicly apologize to the people that I may have endangered. At the time, I had no idea I was even infected. I was careless and make no excuse. I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously.”

If nothing else, the Jazz’s part in the pandemic played a major role in magnifying the issue across America. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, one night after the NBA suspended its season, offered perspective on Gobert testing positive for COVID-19, calling it a “line in the sand” moment.

“This much I know to be true — he hit the warp-speed button on all of this, and by taking away the games that are our society’s greatest gathering place and common ground, it forced everybody to take all of this a whole lot more serious,” Van Pelt said during his “1 Big Thing” segment on SportsCenter that night.

A view of the March Madness banner inside the Dayton Arena, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Dayton, Ohio. The coronavirus outbreak led to the NCAA canceling this year’s men’s basketball NCAA Tournament, along with the women’s tournament and all other NCAA winter and spring championships. | Aaron Doster, AP

Canceling March Madness

A March staple is the annual men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments. On Thursday, though, hours after several conferences canceled their league tournaments, the NCAA announced it was canceling all winter and spring NCAA championships

For the Utah State men’s basketball team, that meant the Aggies wouldn’t be headed to the Big Dance, despite earning an automatic bid by winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament the week before. BYU was considered a lock to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons, as first-year coach Mark Pope had the Cougars ranked No. 14 in the country.

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And now? It’s season over, without the One Shining Moment.

“I think most of my thoughts are with my guys right now. It’s really hard. It’s devastating for them, especially my seniors,” Pope told reporters in a teleconference Thursday. “It’s excruciating for these guys and it’s hard for us. That’s our experience right now. If I could control everything in the world, we would find some way to have this tournament just because my heart’s broken for these kids.” 

While the Utah and Weber State men’s teams had already lost in their respective conference tournaments, UVU and Southern Utah never had the chance to play one final time, either, when the WAC and Big Sky were among 19 conference tournaments to be canceled.

Already at the NCAAs, going home heartbroken

Defending national ski team champion Utah felt the sting in a particularly difficult way, as the Utes were already competing in the second day of the NCAA Division I Skiing Championships when the NCAA announced its cancelation of all winter and spring championships Thursday.

University of Utah skier Joachim Lien competes during the 2020 NCAA Ski Championships in Bozeman, Montana.   | Brooke Frederickson/Utah Athletics

Utah was ahead at the event that was set to finish Saturday, leading the second-place team by 32 points when the governing body canceled the championships, a fact Utah director of skiing Fredrik Landstedt said “was definitely bittersweet” while acknowledging he understood why the decision was made.

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The BYU indoor track and field team was at its NCAA championships, too, along with programs from around the country when the news hit. They had yet to compete — the meet was scheduled to run Friday and Saturday — but that didn’t lessen the sting.

“Just know that it’s a special year, no one can take this. And something good’s going to come out of this. ... Don’t give up on those dreams. They’re just delayed a little bit,” Diljeet Taylor, BYU’s associate director of cross country and track and field, told several of her runners in a moment captured by FloTrack.

Local college sports impacted across the board

In the days since the NBA suspended its season, a steady stream of information has been flowing from sports organizations regarding how they would move forward in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic.

At the collegiate level, conferences like the Pac-12 have gone so far as canceling all sports competition through the academic year, meaning the next time you’ll see any Utes suiting up will be next season. BYU has indefinitely suspended all athletic events, effective immediately, and it’s the same in the Mountain West (Utah State), Big Sky (Weber State and Southern Utah) and Western Athletic (UVU) conferences.

Quarterback Zach Wilson hands the ball off to running back Tyler Allgeier during Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Spring football practices for college teams around the state were suspended as well.

Dixie State, which was playing its final season at the Division II level before moving up to Division I next year, also canceled all spring sports competitions.

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A sliver of hope from the NCAA

The NCAA announced additional details Friday, one of which included banning in-person recruiting for Division I coaches through at least April 15 while advising schools to suspend any official and unofficial visits during this dead period.

There was a glimmer of hope, though, for those athletes in spring sports who appeared they would lose a year of eligibility. “Eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports,” the NCAA said in a statement. “Details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time.”

BYU’s Zach Eschenberg (11) celebrates during a match against UCLA at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. | Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Top college teams without the chance to compete for a title

As a result of the NCAA’s decision to be cautious in a time of uncertainty regarding how widespread the COVID-19 issue is, two local programs that are among the nation’s best in their respective sports won’t have the opportunity to prove if they could bring home a national title.

The undefeated Utah gymnastics team was set to face Utah State in its home finale Friday, then host the Pac-12 Championships the next week. The Utes were ranked No. 4 in the country.

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The BYU men’s volleyball team had just leapfrogged to No. 1 in the nation earlier in the week after the Cougars split two matches with then No. 1 Hawaii on the islands. BYU was 17-1 on the year.

Impact on the soccer community

While it’s not season over for soccer fans, it’s season on hiatus. Thursday morning, the MLS — which is just two games into the 2020 season — announced it would suspend its season for 30 days.

Real Salt Lake forward Justin Meram (9) reacts after missing the goal against the New York Red Bulls in Sandy on Saturday, March 7, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Our clubs were united today in the decision to temporarily suspend our season — based on the advice and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and other public health authorities, and in the best interest of our fans, players, officials and employees. We’d like to thank our fans for their continued support during this challenging time,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement.

Real Salt Lake was scheduled to play at Columbus on Saturday and had just one home game scheduled over the next month.

The U.S. Women’s National Team was scheduled to play Australia in a friendly at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 10, but the U.S. governing organization canceled all women’s and men’s matches through the end of April.

Utah Royals FC opened training camp Monday along with teams throughout the National Women’s Soccer League, with the season set to start mid-April. For now, all NWSL preseason games have been canceled. The USL Championship, the league in which Real Monarchs play, will also be suspended for 30 days.

High school sports going on hiatus

The spring season recently kicked off for high school sports in Utah. On Thursday, the UHSAA announced it would suspend spring sports competition for two weeks beginning March 16. It was left up to individual schools and districts if they would compete in competition over this weekend.

Brighton players come back from halftime as they compete in a high school lacrosse game against Bingham in South Jordan on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“In consultation with board directives and information provided by state public health officials, the UHSAA has suspended spring activities to properly fulfill best practices regarding protection of students and the general public. More information will be sent to member schools and/or districts as it becomes available,” the UHSAA said a press release sent to the media.

Other sports impacted by COVID-19

  • The NFL canceled pre-draft visits, which will undoubtedly impact the evaluation process for draft-eligible players who were expected to be late-round or free-agent selections, as well as its 2020 Annual League Meeting in Florida. Free agency, though, is still set to stay on schedule when the new league year begins next week. The negotiating window for free agents starts Monday, and deals with free agents can be finalized starting at 2 p.m. MDT on Wednesday.
  • Major League Baseball and the minor leagues are delaying the start of the 2020 season. MLB Opening Day had been scheduled for March 26, but the league said it will delay that by at least two weeks. All forthcoming spring training games were also canceled. “As you may be aware, with the closing of Spring Training camps in Arizona and Florida in response to the coronavirus outbreak across the country, the Minor League Baseball season will not start on April 9 as planned,” MiLB president Pat O’Conner said in a statement Saturday. “... Once the public health experts and agencies have decided it is safe to begin the 2020 season, and the players are physically ready to begin the season, we will do so.” The Salt Lake Bees, Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, were scheduled to open the 2020 season against the El Paso Chihuahuas at Smith’s Ballpark on April 9.
  • The Utah Grizzlies announced Saturday the remainder of their 2020 ECHL season has been canceled. “We would like to thank our players, fans, sponsors and staff for an amazing 2019-2020 Grizzlies hockey season,” the team said in a statement.
  • The NHL “paused” its season on Thursday, with the goal to “resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup.”
  • The Masters, scheduled originally for April 9-12, has been postponed, with no makeup dates set. This came one day after the PGA Tour canceled The Players Championship one day into the competition, while also canceling the next three events on the PGA Tour schedule.
  • The Boston Marathon is postponed until Sept. 14. It was scheduled for April 20.
  • The XFL, five games into its 10-week regular season, suspended play immediately on Thursday while saying it will pay players for the full season. “The XFL is committed to playing a full season in 2021 and future years,” the league said in a statement.
  • On Saturday, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was confident the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics will go on as planned beginning in late July. “We will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned,” Abe said, according to the BBC.