On the day sports stopped
The next time you're tempted to buy into the notion that this is all about the money, see Greg Sankey. See him on March 12, 2020, in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on what was supposed to be the second day of the SEC Basketball Tournament.
See the Southeastern Conference commissioner, one of the most thoughtful, rational, composed leaders in intercollegiate athletics, choke up and almost break down.
Why? This was the day sports stopped.
Sankey wanted to share the weight of the SEC's decision to cancel the rest of the tournament, to cancel all conference sporting events through March 30 - at least - because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. It was only one in a stunning series of unprecedented announcements crashing down all around us.
The NBA and Major League Baseball seasons. Postponed. One conference tournament after another. Canceled. All remaining winter and spring NCAA Championships. March Madness. College World Series. For men and women. Not going to happen.
Sankey found perspective in the memory of the last time one of the SEC's marquee events was rocked by a force beyond anyone's imagination or control. He remembered the 2008 SEC Tournament, blown off course by a tornado that hit and damaged the Georgia Dome during a game. That extraordinary week saw the event move to Georgia Tech's on-campus arena. Spectators, for the most part, weren't allowed in. Heavy underdog Georgia won two games in a single day en route to an unlikely and unforgettable title.
Sankey recalled seeing a Georgia player after the nets were cut, walking down a hallway, carrying the championship trophy, saying these words: "This is the best day of my life."
And then Sankey choked up. Almost broke down. Didn't/couldn't say another word for six painful seconds. It had to be one of the worst days of his life - and he was far from alone. At the heart of why he and so many others do what they do is to provide opportunities for young men and women to enjoy their best days.
"I have felt the responsibility to give another team that opportunity," he said, his voice shaking before regaining command. "But the greater responsibility is the health and the information that's come about. That's to say, this is important."
It's easy to criticize leaders who have to face crises, imagined and unthinkable, not of their making, who then are led to make decisions to no one's liking, including their own. Shutting down an annual five-day extravaganza like the SEC Tournament just means more than lightening the wallets of an affluent collection of universities as well as the many outside employees and businesses who truly need the work.
It means robbing young men of the chance of a lifetime. Maybe the last chance they'll ever have to play on a team that competes for a title. Given the NCAA's subsequent decision to close down all its championships for this academic year, consider how many seniors and undergraduate pros-in-waiting have played their final games. Try not to get something in your eye.
Unless, of course, the NCAA does the right thing and grants them an additional year of eligibility while expanding roster sizes going forward. That kind of common sense could be a light shining through the darkness that's begun to invade one gym, field and stadium after another for who knows how long.
No one with an ounce of perspective would suggest that what will be lost by putting a stop to sports is worth the risk of what could be lost if the virus were to spread from an arena crowd into the general population, from a player to an opponent to a grandparent. See Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, who tested positive for the coronavirus after mocking it, standing at the corner of denial and karma. But if the arena has been your home, your escape, your haven for any reason, you know how much this hurts.
Sports gets us through and lifts us up. You can argue it shouldn't, but it does. It doesn't matter, but There goes Davis. It's not life, but Van Tiffin swings his right leg and ... It's good! It's good! It's good! It's good!
Until now, and now what? Beyond keeping the faith, holding our families close, washing our hands and praying for wise decisions from our leaders outside the sports world, what now?
Until March 12, 2020, sports was undefeated. You couldn't stop it. You couldn't even hope to contain it. And then one of the most thoughtful, rational, composed individuals in the arena sat behind a microphone and almost lost it. Because even though he knows and we know sports will return at some point, games will be played and memories made again, this week and the coming dark days and nights would've been filled with opportunities we can never get back.
Don't misunderstand. Sports had to stop. But as soon as it's safe, sports has to come back.