Does COVID-19 Have the Power to Change Sports Forever?

By Abram Erickson

For millions—or perhaps billions—of people across the world, sports provide a welcome diversion from the difficulties of everyday life. Whether the reason to pay attention is to kick back and relax after a tough day at work, to break up the monotony of the daily routine, or just an excuse to gather with family and friends, staying up-to-date on sports information is a passion for many people. 

At its best, sport can unite people in times of trouble, reminding us that whatever else may separate us, we can all love the same game, or all root for the same team. During some of the darkest hours of American history, sport has served as a ray of hope for the downcast and disheartened.

But what happens when times are so dark that even the light of sport is snuffed out?

That’s the situation our world is in right now. As medical professionals put their lives on the line to fight the pandemic, governments tighten restrictions, and citizens hunker down at home, the coronavirus has brought life as we know it to a screeching halt.

As a result, the question must be asked: What will life look like after the pandemic is over?

At this point there is no easy answer. As far as sports are concerned, almost every major sporting event or league has been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19. That growing list includes the 2020 Olympic Games, March Madness, the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, NASCAR, Formula 1, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the MLB, NBA, MLS, and NHL seasons.

For possibly the first time in the history of sport, the world is left without sport. Even during incredibly trying times, sport has always found a way to continue. There are parallels to this year’s events: a shortened 1918 baseball season due to World War I, the cancellation of baseball games on D-Day, or the six-day break the MLB took after 9/11. But we have never seen anything with so widespread an impact on sports as we are seeing today.

And so, the same question must be asked, albeit to a much smaller extent: What will sports look like after the pandemic?

While only time will tell the answer to these two questions, the impact that the virus has had on sports so far does allow us to make some limited predictions about the future of sports. Let’s take a look at two ways COVID-19 may permanently impact the world of sports.

Change Season Schedules

We’ve already seen the impact that the coronavirus has had on scheduling across the spectrum of sports. As mentioned previously, there hardly remain any sporting events that have not been affected by the pandemic. As the virus has yet to show signs of slowing down in the U.S., more sports may be in for a shift in scheduling practices.

In fact, many sports have been eyeing changes to their schedules for a while now. Many important members of NBA circles have long advocated for a change to the schedule from October-June to December-August. This change would mean more basketball during the summer and no overlap with the NFL schedule. In an interview with ESPN, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that this could be a real possibility, especially if the beginning of the 2021 season were to be delayed until December. What happens as a result of the coronavirus could likely become permanent.

“The summer is viewed differently than it was historically from the television standpoint, so regardless of whether we had been going through all this, it’s something that the league office together with our teams has been spending a lot of time on. And we have a lot of our team owners who are technologists, media mavens by background, and so it’s something that committees of owners and league officials have been working on a lot, especially over the last year or so.”

Similarly, Major League Baseball has long dealt with questions over scheduling. Many believe that the current 162-game MLB season is much too long, and takes too large of a toll on players’ bodies.  Opening Day 2020 was originally scheduled for March 26, but has been postponed indefinitely, leaving questions over when the season will start. If this season, shortened due to coronavirus, is well-received by players and fans, the MLB could move to permanently shorten the length of their season.

It is clear that all sports leagues will have to adjust their schedules due to the current pandemic. And as sports leagues aim to please fans and players, if these changes prove superior, we could find them here to stay. 

Promote the Emergence of a More Socially Conscious Athlete

There is no doubt that professional athletes have an incredible power of influence over their fans, and are given an expanded public platform due to their athletic aptitude. For some, this is a curse; as intense media scrutiny forces them to live their lives under a microscope. For other athletes, however, this platform is seen as an opportunity to enact positive change.

There has been a long evolution of athlete activism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as certain players took bold steps during times of crisis to push the boundaries of what was thought as an athlete’s proper place in society. Most famously, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s drove many African-American athletes to stand up for their beliefs, often with devastating consequences.

The story of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and their 1968 Olympic Games protest quickly comes to mind, but there were plenty of other athletes who helped promote the prototype of a socially conscious athlete. It took the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement to encourage many athletes into action, and what we have seen from athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic may point to the fact that we have reached another turning point in the emergence of the socially conscious athlete.

While scores of athletes already have personal charities, and are committed to serving and donating to their communities, this crisis has inspired more action than ever. For example, NBA stars Kevin Love, Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokoumpo, and others, have committed to donating money so that employees who work at sports arenas across the country will still be paid despite having been laid off.

Athletes have also been active on social media, warning people of the dangers of the coronavirus and using their platform to encourage social distancing. Stephen Curry, point guard for the Golden State Warriors, even sat down (virtually) with Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on the coronavirus, and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for a live Q&A session. Their discussion of how to stay safe during the pandemic was viewed by over 50,000 people on Instagram Live.

These examples are just a small taste of the very important work that athletes are doing to use their platforms for good during these challenging times. As many become known for their good deeds, it is possible that this cycle of kindness and activism outlasts the lifespan of COVID-19.

Adjusting to Change

All in all, it is clear that the coronavirus will leave our nation and world different than it was before. Depending on the further devastation it causes, these changes may be small or wide-reaching. There is no way to tell until we are at the end of this journey.

During the last few months, our world has been plunged into crisis, and we have seen the way of life of billions of people change in an instant. One of those changes—admittedly a comparatively inconsequential one—has been to sport.

Throughout history, the ways sports have been played, watched, and organized has undergone radical change. What seems normal today was not even imaginable 50 years ago. And so, while sports have been forced to take a break during this tragic time, I believe their future is still in good hands.

From the sports officials committed to being flexible and bringing sports back as soon as safely possible, to the athletes who are giving of themselves to support others during this trying moment in our history, men and women in sports leadership have the power to guide us into uncertain times.

It is a real possibility that sports may look significantly different whenever they begin to return. Maybe you’ll be watching a sport during a different time of the year than you ever have. Or maybe you’ll have become more interested in the work Steph Curry does in his community than he does on the court. Who knows, maybe masks will even become a permanent part of a sports uniform.

Either way, sports will still be there to greet you at the end of a long day. Friends and family will still gather to watch the game, even if we have to sit a little further apart. Because sports have the power to bring out the best in us. The story of sport is the story of human grit and determination; it’s about the spirit of being knocked down and getting back up again. And no matter what happens next, I’m convinced—now more than ever—that’s not going anywhere.

Photo Credit: Maria Tyutina from Pexels.com

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