SALT LAKE CITY — In a perfect sports world, the NCAA Tournament would be entertaining us this weekend with the second round of action after basketball fans soaked up a bevy of buzzer-beaters, blowouts, heart-wrenching losses and Cinderella upsets, baby!
Utahns might even be celebrating first-round wins by BYU and Utah State, another ski championship up on the Hill and a title march by the Red Rocks. Or counting their “What ifs!?” But at least they’d play and we’d know.
Major League Baseball would be moving closer to opening day. The NBA and NHL would be gearing up for the home stretch and playoff positioning. College and high school spring athletics would be in full swing, and parents would be cheering their hearts out for their kids in fill-in-the-blank sport on Saturday mornings.
Heck, you might even be playing rec league soccer with your buddies, hooping it up at the church once a week or preparing for a challenging race.
Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect sports world.
And thanks to the threat of an unseen and dangerous opponent, March Madness dreams, beloved professional competition and cherished amateur action have all been sidelined for who knows how long.
The current reading on the scoreboard: COVID-19, Sports 0.
There are more important things in the world than sports, of course, and because one of those things includes the sanctity of human life, the sports world has been sent to the dugout — or home in some cases — in an effort to slow and stop the spread of the potentially lethal coronavirus.
As a result of widespread health concerns, people have lost their main source of entertainment, their hobbies, their seasons, their raison d’etre and their connection to their favorite players, leagues and teams. Some have even lost their sources of income as society focuses more on social distancing and hand-washing than heroic efforts, silly moments and athletic achievements in sports.
For now, sports have been canceled, suspended, postponed, pushed into dreaded TBD and TBA territory.
But there’s one thing many sports fans haven’t lost.
Their sense of humor.
Memes, videos and jokes are rampant on social media. One oft-shared Facebook video shows a group of friends going bonkers after a bowler picks up a strike. Exuberant cheers erupt again after a chess player makes a strategic move.
Another circulating joke is a quarantine journal entry: “Day 3 without sports. Found a lady sitting on my couch yesterday. Apparently she’s my wife. She seems nice.”
A “March Sadness” bracket is also making the rounds. The seeding from one region is as follows: “1. Watch TV vs. 16. Yard work; 8. Vacuum vs. 9. Dust; 5. Interact with family vs. 12. Tax Prep; and 4. Get to know my wife vs. No. 13 BBQ.”
Another meme shows still shots from a Netflix series about Pablo Escobar. The photos show an extremely depressed-looking Escobar (“Narcos” actor Wagner Moura) with his head tilted down, staring below him while on a swing, at the table and in an empty swimming pool. The caption: “Life without sports.”
But for some hardcore sports fans, the struggle is no joke.
Leslie Howlett, a nurse and an accomplished long-distance runner, used the words “struggling” (for Talmage, her teenage son) and “surviving” (for Jeremy, her husband) to describe the sports lovers in her family.
“Talmage misses everything. He’s pretty much dying inside. Jeremy pretty much just misses watching,” she said. “Talmage is basically a large, empty void at this time — can’t watch, nothing new to listen to, can’t play with his friends or go to the gym to shoot hoops. He needs help. He has resorted to watching rerun random basketball games.”
There are many adults who can feel Talmage’s pain.
Kyle Flanagan was planning on using sports to help him heal after a divorce. This timeout couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“Not coping at all with no sports. Can’t even watch old games because it makes me sad,” Flanagan said. “I had tickets to six Braves games in the first week of the baseball season — three in Phoenix to open the season and three in Atlanta following that. I’m divorced and this was going to be my first baseball season single and I was going to go nuts with baseball to distract me from other (stuff). I’m sad, man. I miss sports so much — and the Jazz.”
Eric Bresee, a former Deseret News employee who now does freelance TV production work across the continent, is also having a hard time with the extra stoppage time. Sports aren’t just his hobby; it’s how he provides for his young family.
“I’m dying. Mentally, physically and financially,” the Seattle Seahawks fan said. “The sooner sports are back, the better for me.”
Until that happens, sports fans and sports programs are trying to find ways to help fill the void.
The University of Utah athletics department doesn’t have any sports to offer for now — don’t mention that to the gymnasts and skiers who were national championship contenders — but the Utes are giving younger fans a fun distraction.
On Friday afternoon, the athletics department tweeted out a Swoop coloring page and acknowledged, “It’s been a week, hasn’t it?”
Crew Frkovich was one of the young Ute fans who excitedly — and expertly — colored Swoop’s brown feathers, yellow beak and red uniform while staying in the lines. His dad thought it was awesome Utah gave his son an activity to do.
“We are trying to stay physically and mentally active,” Ute fan Chris Frkovich said. “We have been doing workouts in our home gym. We have also been doing arts/crafts and playing games as a family to keep our minds active. My son was stoked when I saw the Swoop coloring page.”
Utah Jazz artists have also created a coloring book to help their fans bide their unprecedented spare time and “unleash their inner Picasso.” Some of their pages are simple designs with logos and shoes. There are also detailed pieces that include collages of team legends — from old-schoolers Frank Layden, Jerry Sloan, John Stockton and Karl Malone to new All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
Utah’s NBA team is also rolling out a “Jazz Playback” series, which includes 13 iconic games featuring players on the current roster — from the Portland game that went into overtime after Gobert blocked Damian Lillard in 2017 to Bojan Bogdanovic’s two game-winning buzzer-beaters to Mitchell’s career-high 46-point outburst against Milwaukee.
In Provo, BYU’s social media team collected a list of their local dining partners and showed which restaurants offer curbside pickup, drive-thru, online ordering, call-ahead ordering and delivery services. The lineup includes the popular Bam Bam’s BBQ, which has been frequented by Cougar legends Taysom Hill (he signed a helmet) and Chad Lewis (he took a selfie with owner Cameron Treu) in recent days.
Ben Coombs admitted he’s struggling without sports.
“Sports does much more good for society than what Twitter will lead you to believe. It brings people together and to me is the purest example of what we should always keep in mind: that we are all the same,” Coombs said. “It’s like soul food for me. It gives something to look forward to. Watching old games is OK, but it’s like watching old home movies from when times were better.”
He’s filling his time with a difficult job hunt, drawing and family time, though he admits his family is getting “a little stir crazy.”
Like many athletes, BYU/Jazz fan Scott Murdoch, who says he’s “definitely struggling,” has turned to video games to kill time and cope.
“Fortunately, NBA 2K20 was on sale so I bought it to help,” Murdoch said. “It’s still not the same as watching or playing actual basketball, but it’s helped some. Especially when Gobert gets a sweet block or the game I played when right out of halftime Mitchell made four straight 3s to start the half.”
Cody Christian already misses watching the Jazz play — they haven’t since a March 9 loss to Toronto — and interacting with fellow fans.
“I would say that I am surviving without sports. It’s been hard without my stress release that sports gives, but lately the Jazz were anything but not stressful!” he (sorta) joked. “I miss seeing Jazz Twitter talk about the games. And even if it was a discussion on what was broken with the team, it was still a sports discussion.”
Christian said he’s picked up the guitar, but he also misses watching his son, Landon, play on his first comp basketball team.
“We had just started his spring session, and it was all canceled,” he said. “He was extremely disappointed in it and is hoping he hasn’t lost what skills he had gained.”
Steve Mallett knows what they’re going through.
“It sucks,” he said, emphatically. “I love March Madness and I hate not getting to watch my son’s high school lacrosse games.”
On a positive, Mallett joked that it is “nice to not freeze my (tush) off every game.”
Joshwa Simms misses his escape from reality and a replacement for the passion he has for sports, adding, “March Madness is my Christmas, and also not being able to play pickup ball at the church is brutal.”
Kathy Bjorklund renewed her library card and has online books delivered to her device. Adam Peterson said he’s doing the unthinkable: watching international soccer. Brendan Holmes has a tasty substitute: “We got plenty of meat. So lots of smoking and BBQ for us.”
Michael Reid finished John Feinstein’s “The Back Roads to March” book, calling it “a very nice substitute for the real thing.” Jay Wamsley said he’s played basketball at noon at least three times a week for 30 years, so he’s bummed it’s on hold. He’s even more upset about USU’s season ending prematurely. “Yes, I hurt for Sam Merrill.” Cougar fan Jason Gifford feels the same about Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson, TJ Haws and the BYU crew. “The hardest thing so far was not being able to see how BYU would do in the tournament.”
Bill Shields says he misses the NCAA Tournament action and brackets, but mostly misses watching his daughter play soccer, even her practices. “But,” Shields added, “we’re having some killer Phase 10 contests.”
But even though he’s a big-time Jazz fan and season-ticket holder, Max Chang has too much on his mind to worry about missing sports.
“I simply don’t care about sports right now,” Chang said. “It’s not even close to being a priority on the hierarchical of needs.”
“As a fan of sports in general, it’s made (life) a little less entertaining when it comes to what I like to watch,” Daniel Johnson added. “But I’m surviving.”
Ute fan Jason Stapley has gotten creative in his coping.
“It surprisingly hasn’t been as bad as I thought ... so far. The timing had something to do with it since all the local basketball teams had completed their respective conference tournaments. (Thursday) was weird because I always take off the first two days of March Madness and did so this year, just with no games,” Stapley said. “And the longer this goes, the stranger it will get as there are no baseball games to watch. Alternatives so far are sports video games and sports tabletop games — Strat-o-matic being chief among them for me. I had to get one game of college basketball in today so I played a game of Inside the Paint (another tabletop game) with the 2015-16 Utes. They promptly followed the example of this year’s Ute team by losing to Cal by 17 on the road.”
If they’re not into any of that, perhaps sports fans could take coping-in-quarantine tips from Amber Borczynski. She joked that you can play indoor bowling using empty toilet paper rolls and balled up socks (assuming you can find any TP for that). And she’s ready to invent some more indoor sports for her family.
“Who needs to talk about sports when you can create an indoor arena of fun?” Borczynski said. “I’m ready for ‘Wipeout’ or ‘American Ninja Warrior, Quarantine Style.’ The floor is lava, the coffee table is the table of death ... good times.”
Doran Barton, who isn’t a sports fan, joked on his Facebook page that sports fans might’ve gained some empathy for his crowd. “Now,” he wrote, “all the sports fans know how it felt when ‘Firefly’ got canceled.”
Let’s agree on this: The world just isn’t as much fun without sports — OK, or without “Firefly.”
“Honestly, it’s been kind of good for me. I sleep better at night not being fumed after a Jazz loss that they should have won. But I definitely miss watching the game with my family. This roller coaster season is messing with my emotions, man,” Bobby Macey said.
Like many, the Maceys have had more family bonding moments than usual.
“Overall, I do miss the NBA and Jazz in general,” Macey added. “The good news? At least we all know we can survive in a world without live sports on TV. The bad news? It’s a world filled with disease and earthquakes.”
How other sports fans are coping with sports:
• “At least the NFL (and NBA, I think) opened up access to old games on their apps. BTW, NFL Free Agency is interesting to watch.” — Robby Curry
• “I’ve been on a sabbatical since football waiting for baseball to start. It’ll just be a little longer sabbatical.” — Dayton Morton
• “I’m really missing my Golden Knights games. I traveled to Vegas all the time to watch them.” — Carl Downing
• “My husband is a high school athletic director who usually is gone for games several nights a week. This is definitely a strange time for him, but I’m seeing way more of him than I’m used to, which is nice.” — Megan Sivert
• “Family time! Not missing a thing.” — Brady Clark
• “I miss the NBA so much. We are watching old games on NBA TV and watched the game that was on AT&T SportsNet last night. I miss my Jazz!” — Erin Brown
• “I’m not a big sports fan, so no I haven’t suffered. Now (my husband) Butch and (son) Todd are a different story.” — Jan Genessy (the author’s aunt)
• “I miss March Madness and the Jazz. Other than that, doing just fine.” — Landon Hemsley
• “Ask me again in August. The hardest thing so far was not being able to see how BYU would do in the tournament. I also missed being able to establish bragging rights with tourney challenges at work.” — Jason Gifford
• “I’ve seen so many sporting events in my life from being a sports broadcaster, collegiate and pro sports PR person and a basketball referee that I have enough sports stored up in my hump that I’m going to be just fine.” — Scott Miller, formerly of KSL Sports
• “There’s still WWE! They are actually doing a good job of playing off of the fact that they have no audience, which is usually such an integral part or their show. I’m sure it will end up having to stop once one or more of their performers test positive (for the coronavirus).” — Chris Harris
• “Strangely, as much as I miss sports, I have found that I am way less anxious and distracted at night than normal because I am not worrying about the Jazz. It was a sad realization that I am emotionally codependent with my favorite teams.” — Brandon Winn
• “Mine is a little different since I haven’t been able to see many Jazz games since I lost my season tickets (due to price increases). Without the games going on, I feel even less like I am missing out. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that, like happened with the NFL for me, within a few years I might catch 1-2 games a year if I happen to not be busy. That’s coming from a lifelong, very rabid fan.” — Jeremy Makay Adams
• “Bummed that baseball isn’t starting. Still getting a little excitement about some of the trades for the NFL.” — Megan Kepler
• “Participating. I’m going crazy and need a release.” — Brynne Butterfield, who plays female semi-pro football
• “I’m surviving. The NFL free agency has at least given me a little sports.” — Steve Allsup
• “Yes! I am struggling hardcore without sports. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t spend all day in front of the TV, but I really like following stats and the probabilities of the Jazz making the playoffs and analyzing potential matchups for them. Typically I take (Thursday) and (Friday) off work and do nothing but watch and analyze college basketball. March Madness on its opening Thursday and Friday might be some of the best viewing events that sports have to offer. I found myself playing ESPN streak for the cash, and following the NFL trades to prep myself for fantasy football next season. Lastly, my brothers and I are planning a trip to New York in September to go to a Yankees-Sox series. Tickets have already been purchased and I pray that doesn’t get taken away either. My son and I are doing agility training stuff in the basement and using the hit stick so that he is able to play in the upper division as soon as baseball starts back up.” — Jeremy Williamson
• “I’m coping by reacting to NFL free agency — FREE AGENCY!!! — more than usual. Tom Brady going to Tampa Bay felt like the Super Bowl.” — Josher Hansen
• “Surviving, but we are a sports family for sure. The real test will be if they cancel college football. I will seriously probably get depressed.” — Kathleen Campbell
• “I would be at the NCAA wrestling meet right now. A bit bummed.” — Brian Preece
• “Not missing sports at all. Wish the NFL/NBA/MLB players would stop driving up their salaries so when sports resume ticket prices are up in the nosebleed section. I am sorry for the college players whose season came to an abrupt end, especially spring sports which are on hold. (But it gives) more time for families to talk about what is shaking our world and not focusing on celebs.” — Debby Josephson
• “Sports ‘reruns’ are playing in our house.” — Heather Shepherd, wife of BYU broadcaster Jason Shepherd
• “It sucks. I’ve always used it as an escape from politics and stuff I can’t control. All I have now is the news and higher anxiety.” — Shon Harris
• “I hate not having the NBA to watch or talk about, but I’ve also realized there are a lot of shows I was binging I can catch up on.” — John English
• “I honestly haven’t missed sports on TV. I’m hardly able to watch sports live in the first place so it’s usually DVR at my convenience. The main sport I participate in is running, which I’m still able to do quite often, whether it be outside or on my treadmill. I miss the social aspect of it. I’m a social person and I love getting together with group runs or working out with my brother-in-law at the gym for my cross training. As much as I enjoy going on solo runs when I need them to process life, I still miss that human interaction element which has added greatly to my love of running.” — Luke McDermott Jr.
• “March Madness is one of my favorite things ever, so I’m sad not to be able to watch that. However, being a stay-at-home mom with three young children has greatly altered the time I have to watch ANYTHING, EVER so I haven’t noticed it too much. (My husband) John is missing the Jazz.” — Loni Stapley
• “Talk to me when I miss opening day for the Dodgers since they are really the only team that matters.” — Brenda Lingle
• “Depressed without sports for an emotional outlet. Miss discussing most. Still searching for a replacement.” — Mathew Pierce, who does sports podcasting
• “Struggling. I love discussing sports with my coworkers and friends. I have filled the void with yard work and video games. Go Jazz.” — Jody Trujillo
• “Takes me a lot less time to read the paper and more time for SVU!” — Dodie Stallcup
• “I’m struggling but surviving. I miss watching the games, of course, but I think I miss the social aspect the most. Going out to watch the games with family and friends, discussing sports with coworkers and friends.” — Brandon Kidd