Sports Made Us Stop and Sports Can Bring Us Back, too
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
NEW YORK – Sports are not safe, nor very often politic. Sports are, indeed, popular to some who play and spectate but unknown to those who never, ever play, nor care for or understand the games.
Sport is a leader, though, in good times and in bad.
Sports rarely pause in times of crisis. Sports are always there for us.
Well, almost always.
Sport, to its credit and because of the power provided by a legion of fanatics, can lead like no other. Sport realizes its place and its power to lead and understands the responsibility to lead. That responsibility is not taken lightly by those of us who make a living in the industry.
Remember back, when an entire generation of late baby-boomers grew-up in the pathetic and apathetic 1980s. The news reels showed unemployment rates at 7.5%, coming off energy and oil crisis. Inflation rose at all-time highs in the mid-70s at 9.1% and then soared to 13.5% in 1980. A Savings & Loan meltdown, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis dominated the headlines, but a silent killer was hiding under it all.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported the first cases in June 1981 and it wasn’t until September 1982, the term AIDS was first used by the CDC. It wasn’t until May of 1983 until the United States Congress passed the first bill to begin funding AIDS research.
In 1985, Ryan White – the Indiana teenager who contracted the virus thorough a blood transfusion – was refused entry to his middle school, and the nation began to wake-up. That September, then President Ronald Reagan mentioned AIDS for the very first time, about a month before actor Rock Hudson died of the dreaded disease. Much, if not all of the negligence, was because of discrimination against the LGBT community – who for five years was suffering and dying from the contagious disease with little or no government research support.
Fast forward to November 7, 1991 when Earvin “Magic” Johnson walked up to a podium for a hastily arranged press conference at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles to announce to the world that “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers. Today.”
Johnson, thankfully and honestly, admitted he was – until that moment – quite uneducated about the real facts behind a crisis a decade or more in progress. “I didn’t know the difference between the virus and the disease. While my ears heard HIV-positive, my mind heard AIDS,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated. “To me, AIDS was someone else’s disease. It was a disease for gays and drug users. Not for someone like me.”
His sheer guts, his determination, his confidence and his personality combined with the support of the late NBA Commissioner David Stern and we responded to the ongoing crisis like no entity had ever done before – playing it out on both the sports page and the front page for all to see and learn.
The actions of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and David Stern saved countless lives across the globe as Johnson’s simple message of “someone like me” made the youth of the world STOP and pay attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis for the first time. Magic taught us and used his profile to help teach and learn more about the virus, and proper protection against it.
The world faced several other major health crisis between 1991 and 2020, to be sure. There are far too many to list, but the likes of SARS and MERS and H1N1 and Zika and Ebola have all garnered worldwide attention as they claimed countless, innocent lives.
Now, a new strain of a corona virus, tagged as COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease of 2019), has emerged as the most powerful, contagious and potentially deadly pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918.
As cases of the corona virus ran rampant through China and parts of Asia, then spread quickly to Europe (first heavily in Italy) and the Middle East (Iran), there was little attention given to the deadly virus by the citizens of the USA.
Sadly, the US government mistakenly downplayed the growing epidemic from early January 2020 until this past week, fiddling with partisan political rhetoric before realizing the true impact of science, disease, pandemics and the very real effect now facing the public health care system, and the economy.
Then, along came sports.
First was the IVY League which announced it was completely cancelling their men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments. That news was met with much criticism – including here – where the thought was to – at least – play the tournament behind closed doors to fans to allow champions to be crowned and automatic bids to the larger NCAA March Madness tournaments to be earned.
On just Tuesday of this past week, that was the vibe, even though the message that this terrible COVID-19 virus was gaining influence and killing many people, mostly the elderly.
Then came Wednesday – the Day Sports Took Over as the Chief Communications Officer to protect global citizens from this terrible pandemic we’re facing.
The global messenger was the NBA, once again.
Upon realizing that a player on the Utah Jazz had contracted the COVID-19 virus and that the chance of transmitting that virus to another player, coach, athletic trainer, ballboy or fan through touch and mere droplets of sweat, was high — the NBA pulled the plug on a Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game Wednesday night. After that, all hell broke loose in the sports world.
“There is an issue in how quickly this virus is spreading,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver explained in quiet, confident tone to a national sports audience on TNT. “We are relying on the public health experts. What they are telling us is if you can so-called ‘shift the curve’ or ‘flatten the curve,’ if we can push out how quickly this spreads as a public health matter, we’re doing a service for the country.”
Until then, while we had seen a version or two of that “curve” graphic on Twitter, no one had grasped the seriousness of the crisis we are facing.
One by one, the enormity of the situation was realized. Indeed, everyone realized the same exact thing I realized as though a bolt of lightning had struck while sitting Courtside at Madison Square Garden for the annual BIG EAST college basketball tournament.
There were honest cries of “Holy Shit,” in the most “Holy Shit” sports AND news moment of the last 100 years. “The Ivy League was right!”
After the shock and disappointment of losing everyone’s favorite conference basketball tournament, the fun of forecasting Selection Sunday (would’ve been today), the cancellation of all NCAA March Madness, the NBA and NHL placed on hold, the Players Championship (the 5th Major) halted, MLS, a reluctant NASCAR and MLB all falling down – like dominoes – the seriousness of the situation landed like a Mike Tyson punch.
This is real. And, now we’re left dumbfounded with the harsh reality we’re facing for an uncertain future of shock.
The ONLY way to defeat this pandemic is to take it on ourselves.
We’re now on the very front end of the biggest and most important community relations project of our lifetime.
It’s on every one of us to do our own part and to do everything we can to support and then encourage our fellow community members to take care and prepare. The call to action includes everyone young and old, our entire families, all co-workers, friends, neighbors – everyone. (READ > HERE)
It will be MUCH longer than what we could ever imagine. It will get harder, more frustrating and last long enough to severely crush our normal activities in life and possibly our global economic markets, never mind our personal pocketbooks.
Lost jobs, short-term layoffs, tons of inconveniences will build, however gradual or devastating. They are real, life-changing problems.
The loss of March Madness will no longer matter to basketball fans when there’s still dire uncertainty a month from now.
It will hurt.
But, we must endure and we must rally – within and without.
Surely, our sports will be there to welcome us back. Like Baseball after the 9/11 Terrorist attacks, or like the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon, a year after the Red Sox and Big Papi, the Bruins and the Celtics all guided us back after that terrible 2013 Marathon terrorist bombing. Please remember that the power of sports brings communities, towns, cities, states, Commonwealths and nations together.
We’ll need it, eventually.
Otherwise, history tells us, it gets ugly, uglier, ugliest.
We mustn’t allow that to happen.
It’s on us, people, because there’s nothing more powerful than the human spirit. We must use it to its most positive and deeply-focused inner desires for good over evil and negativity or hopelessness.
Wrote David Brooks, an opinion columnist for the New York Times today, citing Giovanni Boccaccio in “The Decameron,” chronicling Florence in 1348:
“Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met … nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”
Here Now, The Notes: Certainly the first thing anyone thought about when the news broke of Rick Pitino‘s return to college basketball coaching at Iona was, “Jeff Ruland ain’t walking through that door.” … The Christian Brothers obviously forgiving Pitino and offering him the Division I gig and high profile of the NYC ‘burbs of New Rochelle in light of his tainted past. … What Say You? … So Be It. Give the man one last chance. … In what might be the most idiotic consideration since this whole mess began, the NCAA is “actually” considering putting out a “faux” 68-team 2020 March Madness Bracket as multiple reports had the infamous “committee” meeting by conference call, building and publicly releasing a “pretend” bracket. … Since the men’s and women’s tournament were canceled on Thursday, multiple high-profile coaches, including Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, have lobbied for the release of the bracket to recognize the accomplishments of teams this season. NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said Friday that NCAA might just oblige. … “We’re hearing today there’s interest from coaches and athletic directors from that,” Gavitt said in a CBS Sports interview Friday. “I wouldn’t say we’ve shut down the idea completely, but there is, practically speaking, it’s a bit challenging at this moment. … There’s pluses and minuses to any decision. If you put the field together, you could have teams, depending on that conference’s policy, would not be the most obvious choice as the [automatic qualifier]. It’s something we’re going to continue to look at. This has been so fast, so emotional, we’ll continue to think on it a little bit.” … Of course, anyone and everyone associated with this concept says nothing when asked if St. John’s would get the automatic bid since they were leading BIG EAST No. 1 seed Creighton in their quarterfinal Thursday when the conference and national tournaments were cancelled. … Nope, they don’t seem to have an answer nor care to ponder that thought! … The only possible place this could be coming from is from selfish coaches who might have incentive bonuses, and if that is the case, God Help Us All.
Sadly, there were some “runner-up” moronic suggestions as sports pundits and talking heads scrambled to fill air time dedicated to the various college basketball tournaments going dark. … “Why don’t they simply postpone and play the tournament at later dates (May Madness),” asked a multi-million dollar ESPN tv pundit to his colleague? … In another show 24-hours later, ESPNs Jay Bilas answered politely and with a measure of disbelief, the ridiculousness of the very same question which showed the absolute void of knowledge by talking heads for the vast cost, planning and executing of a 14-venue, three-plus week tournament. The holes in the suggestion are far too many to even fathom, but let’s start with ARENA AVAILABILITY? Do you think The Garden will close down for the new Knicks’ and Rangers’ schedules to host the NCAA Eastern Regional when its time? … Oh, only three venues in the USA to do the entire tournament? … Do you think the TV trucks just roll-in and magically appear? … Fans drop everything and buy tickets, and travel? Economic pressures be damned. Concession food orders, all the logistical planning, government and local security planning, catering, city hotel blocks? … Please? … How about the players themselves? Maybe its time to move-on and seek a job if you’re a senior with non-professional skills and are facing the harsh reality of his/her college basketball career come to an abrupt halt? As sad and as unfortunate as that problem is, it just might be a fact of life in March of 2020. … Amazing.
Punting: While sports fans wait for sports, the New England Patriots wait to learn if franchise quarterback Tom Brady will return next season, the Pats retained another of their mainstays on Friday. … Special teams captain Matthew Slater agreed to a two-year extension, multiple media outlets reported. According to ESPN, the finances of the contract are similar to those in the two-year, $5.2 million deal that Slater just completed. … The only longer-tenured Patriots than Slater (12 seasons), are Brady (20 seasons) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski (14 seasons). … Slater, 34, was selected to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player for the eighth time in 2019, breaking a record he previously shared with Steve Tasker. He recorded 10 tackles last season and recovered a fumble. … After playing wide receiver and defensive back at UCLA, Slater was selected by the Patriots in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. His father is Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, a star offensive tackle for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams from 1976-95.
Diamond Dust-Ups: Barry Bonds says Major League Baseball hasn’t just kept him out of the sport since he retired in 2007. The slugger says he has received a fate that’s even worse. … “A death sentence. That’s what they’ve given me,” Bonds, 55, told The Athletic in an interview. … Bonds, who holds the all-time records for homers in a season (73) and a career (762), is a seven-time league MVP, eight-time Gold Glove recipient and 14-time All-Star. … His significant accomplishments, however, are tainted by the suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs during his career. … Bonds has fallen short of Hall of Fame induction in each of his first eight years on the ballot. He received 60.7 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in January, with 75.0 percent needed to be enshrined in Cooperstown. … “If they don’t want me, just say you don’t want me and be done with it,” he said of the Hall of Fame. “Just be done with it.”
New York Yankees star outfielder Aaron Judge said Thursday he is feeling encouraged about his progress from a cracked right rib. Judge said he was pushing to return quickly but was unable to pinpoint a date. … “I really don’t want to put myself in a box and say, ‘Hey, middle April,’ and answer questions on April 15, ‘Hey why aren’t you in there?'” Judge told reporters at the team’s spring-training facility at Tampa. … His comments were made before MLB’s expected announcement that league activities would be put on hold because of the coronavirus.
With that in mind, you can’t help but realize that the delayed start to the MLB season could help ease return for recuperating players such as Judge, Boston’s Chris Sale, James Paxton (NYY), Michael Conforto (Mets), Paul Goldschmidt (Cards), Max Scherzer (Nationals), Justin Verlander and Jordan Alvarez (Houston Astros). … Speaking of a Get Well Soon: Baltimore Orioles outfielder-first baseman Trey Mancini had surgery Thursday to remove a malignant tumor from his colon. “Lab results and the timetable for Trey’s recovery will not be known until (this coming) week,” the Orioles said in a statement. “In the interim, Trey and his family continue to appreciate the respect for privacy.” … The tumor was discovered last week during a colonoscopy. … Mancini, who turns 28 on March 18, also issued a statement. … “The outpouring of love and support I have received has made an extremely tough week so much better. I have the best family, friends, fans, and teammates imaginable. I am also extremely thankful for the Orioles front office, our athletic trainers and the entire medical staff for everything they have done to help me during this time,” he said. … “Finally I would like to thank everyone for their prayers and kind words, which have furthered my excitement to get back to playing the game I love.” … Mancini was the most productive player last season for the Orioles. He batted .291 with 175 hits, including 38 doubles and 35 home runs, and 97 RBIs in 154 games.
With hopes for the best of results battling the corona virus, let’s look for MLB to do a 148-game regular season schedule and they’ll need to return to the day-night doubleheader program in grand fashion (five times or more per team).
Digital Sports Desk posts a once-a-week Sunday Notes column entitled: “While We’re Young Ideas.” It’s a throwback of sorts to the days when sportswriting and the baseball beat were the best jobs in the entire sports industry, maybe the entire world. One of those sportswriters was named Dick Young and he wrote “Young Ideas” with a “Diamond Dust” section for notes and quotes. … We continue that tradition with respects to the great New York sportswriter and welcome feedback and suggestions (psst, they call ’em pitches) for mentions within “While We’re Young Ideas” or Digital Sports Desk. Please follow and encourage (at least) another person or two to plug into (@DigSportsDesk) (@WhileYoungIdeas) and (@terrylyons).