2020 reminded us that the show mustn’t always go on. Disrupted by the coronavirus, sports stopped cold three months in and then started up again in emptied-out stadiums, stumbling, skidding and finally staggering across the finish line — all the while shadowed by loss.
Celebrations were muted, crowd noise was piped-in and dozens of games were canceled at the last minute even as the sports industry hemorrhaged jobs. Facing increasingly long odds, some mega-events — the Olympics, March Madness, the Boston Marathon and Wimbledon — pushed the starting line into 2021. Those were hardly the only dislocations.
Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in late January, and the toll of beloved figures we mourned kept mounting — Diego Maradona, Don Shula, John Thompson and Bob Gibson, among others — until Phil Niekro passed away two days after Christmas. But those moments of unity lasted only so long. Straining under the combined weight of a pandemic and a nationwide reckoning on race, the last few bricks in the wall between sports and politics crumbled and fans and athletes quickly chose sides — take Naomi Osaka, for one, who used her U.S. Open-winning run to speak out on racial injustice.
Time will tell what was won or lost by playing on. Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse experienced both, but wasn’t sure which memories would prove lasting. Easier to settle was what he missed most: everything that goes on around the games themselves.
“The ‘electricity’ in the streets on game day, the tremendous buzz in the city,” said Nurse, who won NBA coach of the year honors, but saw his team’s chances to repeat as champions squashed by the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Technically that was a “home” game, but it was played in the nearly-empty NBA “bubble.”
“We certainly missed that (energy),” he added.
Stretched between public health concerns and a worsening economy, leagues and teams scrambled to innovate and return to play. With access to robust COVID-19 testing and deeper pockets than most businesses, some sports gathered players in isolated spots — like the NBA’s use of a sports complex at Walt Disney World in Florida — while others attempted to restore some semblance of home-and-away normalcy.
It worked for nearly all of them, but just barely. The Denver Broncos ran out of healthy quarterbacks at one point in the NFL season and the San Francisco 49ers called Arizona home as the coronavirus surged in California late in the season. Preparations to rush back college football and basketball games were so inconsistent from one program to the next, the schedules might as well have been written in invisible ink.