It’s hard to believe that at the beginning of March we still had professional, college, high school, and youth sports. Now, it’s hard to imagine when those sports might be coming back. Two weeks ago, the NCAA announced that March Madness would be played without fans. The day after that, the whole NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament was cancelled along with remaining winter and spring championships. In that same week, the NBA; NHL; MLB; colleges; high schools; and Little League, just to name a few, postponed or cancelled their seasons.
At Silbo, we often talk about the risk of living in a world without sports if we don’t solve the sports official crisis. Despite this, it’s always been simply hypothetical, something that could happen if we don’t get the shortage of referees and umpires under control. It’s always felt distant and despite truly believing it’s a problem, it’s easy to forget just how urgent it is.
Now, we are living that reality.
I had been closely following the news of coronavirus before it impacted US sports so severely, but as I watched sports cancellations and postponements I began to feel it on another level. When the Ivy League cancelled their tournament, I joked about them not being that good at basketball, but then wondered what they knew that we didn’t.
When a friend first broke the news to me that the NCAA tournament would be played without fans I asked them to repeat themselves in case I’d heard them wrong. As I tried to imagine these games being played in an empty stadium, I flashed back to a moment in the stands at the 2015 Final Four where I watched the Spartans fall to Duke in the kind of energetic sports atmosphere that gives you goosebumps. Was it even worth playing the tournament without fans? Later that night an ESPN update notified me that the NBA was suspended. It all felt like a bad dream.
The next day was flooded with news that the conference tournaments were being suspended. One by one the announcements flowed in. Next it was the NHL and MLB. Finally, the one that weighed the heaviest, the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It felt hard to breathe. Even though I had all but expected this news, it felt like a punch to the gut. No March Madness? I could already taste the wings and beer I’d consume with the MSU alumni group as we cheered on the Spartans from a sports bar in North Carolina. The high of cheering them on in their Elite 8 win against Duke last year is still so vivid it’s hard to believe that I won’t cheer them on at all this year. Nothing felt real anymore.
With the sadness of no tournament, I started to think of the athletes. First, senior basketball players who wouldn’t get to experience the thrill of the tournament one last time. Then all spring sports athletes. Sports are more than physical, they’re emotional. I thought of the athletes who’d spent all year training for their spring season just to be sent home to take classes online for the remainder of the semester. This was beyond anything any of us could have imagined.
As a sports fan, cancellation of the professional leagues and March Madness hit the hardest initially, but with time for that to sink in, I started to think more and more about youth sports. I thought about high schoolers who suddenly wouldn’t be playing in the spring or didn’t get to finish their winter seasons. I thought about young kids getting excited for the start of their little league or soccer seasons only to find out that it wouldn’t be starting for months or maybe even longer. I’m sad for the physical benefits, life lessons, and memories they’ll be missing out on over the next few months.
A shortage of sports officials won’t cancel all sports as quickly as COVID-19, but before this pause of sports, we were already seeing the impacts. More and more games across the country are postponed and cancelled because there aren’t enough sports officials. Trends suggest that if something doesn’t change, we could see significant disruption to all sports. This is a complex problem that won’t be solved overnight, but here are a few ways you can help:
1. Practice good sportsmanship. Eighty percent of new officials quit after 2 years with most citing bad behavior by parents and coaches as the reason.
2. Consider becoming a sports official. Getting started is as easy as downloading the Go Silbo app on the App Store or Google Play. During the verification process, the Silbo team can connect you to training opportunities if needed.
As sad as each day without sports has been, I believe the cancellations that have been made are the right move to slow the spread of COVID-19. I hope that they work and that in a few months, we’ll resume sports (and life) as usual. But I also hope that we can all remember what life without sports felt like and that it motivates us to do everything we can to keep this from happening again.