Coronavirus and the surreality of life without sports

When even the distractions are canceled

A hockey arena.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Of all the dominoes that fell with successive, concussive blows on Wednesday and Thursday last week, shattering the sports-and-entertainment world, oddly the one that struck me hardest was the suspension of the PGA Tour.

I like turning on golf late at night, after my wife and the baby have gone to sleep. I've come to find in it something dimly reassuring — the polite applause and sun-licked, verdant fairways in faraway venues. It's never quite clear when the tour schedule ends and when it begins, so the season seems on one continuous loop around the calendar, month after month, year after year. Even in the dead of winter here, fumbling around the remote with the lights turned off, I can count on some tournament, somewhere, and a grown man still squatting on a green, unhurried, scrutinizing the breaks with his caddy.

That is, until this weekend, almost certainly the most surreal and disorienting in the history of American sports. First, the NBA suspended its season, after a player tested positive, followed quickly by the NHL. Then the NCAA canceled March Madness — brackets busted everywhere — and Major League Baseball called a wrap on spring training, and then tennis and soccer and rugby and the Boston Marathon joined the closing ceremonies. Finally the PGA, one of the longest holdouts, waved the white flag and surrendered, too, caving to coronavirus and common sense, as the nation burrows in.

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Suddenly millions of sports fans, already parched from February — always the driest sports-viewing month — and eager for spring's revival were left in an unprecedented quandary — what to watch?

I scanned the meager options Saturday night. On ESPN, UFC fight night, live from Brazil, telecast from an empty arena. MLB Network had a sullen-looking Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo opining about who benefits from a shortened season. But the channel guide for CBS Sports Network offered a painful glimpse of what should have been — a bracket show highlighting the Division I conference tournaments with precious insight for a million office pools — and instead was broadcasting rodeo. Here, again, the arena was empty, and the bulls and the cowboys seemed to be wondering the same question: What are we doing?

On Sunday morning, the NFL, never one to miss an opening, blared out a reminder that there were still sports business matters at hand, and the players had agreed to a mammoth restructuring of the league's collective bargaining agreement. Blissfully, ESPNNews had some news. Iona College, just outside the containment zone in New Rochelle, N.Y., embraced the quietude as an opportunity to announce a controversial coaching hire, sneaking Rick Pitino back from basketball purgatory under the cover of mass distraction.

Distraction is what many Americans need most right now, and sports had always happily obliged. To be without them, all of them, all at once, is an unmoored and unsettling feeling.

Sports has taken a back seat before, some might say. After 9/11, athletic competition came to a necessary, screeching halt for 10 days until the Mets' Mike Piazza and an eighth-inning home run gave New York City a cathartic jolt and sent warm blood rushing back through a scared-stiff nation.

Just as fans seemed to unify in the tentative weeks after the attacks, I've tried to rationalize our current hiatus as potentially medicinal for those of us too wrapped up in sports' daily disputes and squabbles, warped by the talk-radio blabosphere and social-media nastiness. There's nothing wrong with a healthier perspective and a reminder of why the games exist in the first place — as competition, entertainment, diversion. Forget about the Knicks and the Sixers. Pause the lamentations of the state of the Mets bullpen. Giannis or LeBron? Hardly matters now. Tom Brady's free-agency barely warrants a headline. Can Tiger repeat at Augusta? I guess we'll find out... eventually.

It doesn't take a diehard to recognize, however, that this daily string of little insanities is part of the webbing that helps keep us all sane.

Who can blame the sports leagues? Nobody should. That doesn't mean one can't feel a little deserted, like your weekend foursome suddenly bolted in for the clubhouse while you were planning to make the turn. Sunday night offered only flashbacks and rewinds and documentaries on the networks my fingers have come to know by pure muscle memory. The classic replays are like empty calories, vivid but insubstantial without being affixed with the four meaty letters that signify boundless possibilities and enduring hope: L-I-V-E.

Read a book, my father said, helpfully. I will, I told him.

The problem, in times like these, is that I'm not craving something new. As the threat of the novel coronavirus compounds around us, I search the channels for something familiar.

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