Thank you to NBA, SEC, NFL and all sports for getting us through the pandemic | Commentary

Mike Bianchi, Orlando Sentinel
·9 min read

Much has been written and said over the past couple of days about the one-year anniversary of American sports shutting down due to COVID-19.

We’ve seen reporters dig and delve into the massive financial crisis that has devastated professional and collegiate sports leagues. We’ve seen stories looking backward on how each sport reacted to the pandemic and we’ve seen stories looking forward on how these sports will be forever changed.

I would like to write a different kind of story today; a story thanking sports and all of its athletes and coaches and commissioners and athletic directors who have helped us immeasurably through one of the most trying times in our nation’s history.

Let’s start with the biggest thank you to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his sport for alerting the nation that this mysterious malady called the coronavirus was, in fact, serious — deadly serious. Who will ever forget that night of March 11, 2020 in Oklahoma City when the pregame music was being played on the floor while Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz players were getting ready to be introduced and tipoff was just minutes from happening?

That’s when Silver learned that Jazz star center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus and made the bombshell decision to shut down the NBA.

“We don’t take game cancellations lightly,” recalls Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins. “As I sat there that night, I felt like the world was about to change forever.”

And, so, it did. After Silver made the seismic decision to pull the plug on the NBA, the ripple effect swept through the country like a tsunami. College basketball shut down, the NCAA Tournament was canceled and every other sport from golf to NASCAR shuddered its venues — as did bars, restaurants, airports, health clubs, beauty salons and other gathering spots throughout the nation.

“The NBA was really the first to pull the trigger and say, ‘Economic consequences be damned, we have to put public health above this until we can get a sense of what’s going on,’ ” Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, told Yahoo Sports. “So I think that was a monumental event for the U.S.”

Silver and the NBA also deserve a massive thank you for showing us that sports could actually get back to business as long as it was done safely. It was 141 days after the shutdown that the NBA began playing games within a self-contained bubble at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. I was there firsthand to witness the care and caution the NBA utilized and I’m still amazed at the planning and preparation that went into it. If only our politicians had been as steadfast, resolute and prepared.

NBA players were tested daily and masks were mandatory within the bubble — no exceptions. Players in the bubble used a mobile app every morning to monitor their health and filled out a health questionnaire with the information being sent directly via Bluetooth to medical personnel on site. Everybody in the bubble had a pulse oximeter that measured the amount of oxygen in their blood. There was even an electronic monitor everyone wore that gauged social-distancing and beeped whenever you got too close to another human being.

And whenever anyone left the inner bubble for whatever reason, they were required to quarantine and be constantly tested before they were allowed back in. Tips about anyone violating the league’s health and safety protocols could be left anonymously on what the players came to call the “snitch” hotline. The league’s security team then investigated.

“The NBA has left no stone unturned,” Jeff Weltman, the Magic’s president of basketball operations, said at the time. “It’s unbelievable the amount of caution and the layers of safety they have taken to make this work.”

The result: By the time the Lakers beat the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to win the championship, 22 teams had come and gone over a span of three-plus months in the NBA bubble — and not a single player tested positive for the virus.

“It was a miracle,” Martins says. “It was historic. I think it was a great case study that if you wear your mask, if you keep your distance, if you practice all of the hygiene protocols and keep those who are infected away, then you could have a somewhat normal life and business. I believe the NBA helped drive that point home to the public.”

Even though other sports leagues didn’t return to play within a completely self-contained bubble, the NBA set the ultimate example for health and safety. And as other sports leagues began to return with their own partial bubbles, it gave millions and millions of Americans something exciting and fun to watch during those dreadful dog days of the pandemic.

Who will ever forget before live sports returned when fans were watching, talking about and debating “The Last Dance” — ESPN’s 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan’s final championship season with the Chicago Bulls — as if were happening in real time.

“I remember how cathartic that Michael Jordan documentary was,” Florida Gators athletics director Scott Stricklin recalls now. “Not only did we have something to watch, but there was the social-media aspect of it where people would connect with others while they were watching it. I think it showed how important sports are in our society and how much we missed them.”

We would be remiss today if we didn’t thank those college administrators, such as Stricklin and so many others, who figured out a way to bring back college football despite the nattering nabobs of negativity who railed against the sport’s return.

“It was dicey on whether we should play,” remembers new UCF athletics director Terry Mohajir, who was then the AD at Arkansas State. “The national narrative and some of those in the national media were piling on and essentially saying, ‘How can you let your teams play football? You’re going to kill your players.’ It was brutal.”

Guess what? College football played a season – albeit one filled with disruptions and distractions - and nobody died.

A mega-monumental thank you should go out to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey for not bending to the national narrative when other leagues (see Big Ten and Pac-12) were wavering and waffling and cancelling and then un-cancelling their seasons. Sankey’s response was quite simple. The SEC would move forward with a conference-only season until further notice. As Sankey tweeted back in July: “The best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day.’ … Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

When I asked Sankey the other day to reflect back on what his decision meant to fans and players, he replied: “When I issued that statement that we were going to continue forward, we weren’t just going to stop as others were, our social media monitoring — which usually on a Saturday is dominated by the color red and centers around disagreements and not-so-kind words on officiating and things like that — was dominated by the word ‘hope’ and it was in the color green. I realized then the importance of what we were trying to do.”

Sankey then recalled the comment from Tennessee Volunteers cornerback Alontae Taylor, who said at the time, “I’ll be swabbed every day if it means I get to play football on Saturday.”

That’s what so many college football critics did not understand; that players desperately wanted to play and would actually be safer in the controlled environment of their teams, where they would be tested multiple times per week and be in their own little partial bubble. Some players in the Big Ten even filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the conference to reverse course and resume its season.

“Players are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence argued at the time. “We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football. Without the season, as we’ve seen already, people will not social distance or wear masks and take the proper precautions.”

At the University of Florida, Stricklin held a Zoom meeting in the early summer with players on the team’s football leadership committee and told them there might not be a season.

“I told them there was a chance we weren’t going to play in the fall, and on the little chat function in Zoom (Gators quarterback) Kyle Trask immediately asked the question, ‘Can we play in the spring?’ ” Stricklin remembers. “Kyle’s question showed me how badly these guys needed something to work toward.

“I think we’ve all learned that having college athletics really matters to athletes and fans and to the fabric of our culture and society,” Stricklin adds. “No, college athletics isn’t perfect, but I love Churchill’s quote about democracy when he said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all of the others.’ Yes, college athletics has its flaws, but it does so much good for so many young people.”

And for so many of us middle-aged and old people, too.

Football, basketball, baseball and soccer games certainly pale in comparison to life and death, but they sure help us cope with life and death.

Back in World War II, President Franklin Delano believed sports would help the nation’s morale during wartime and urged baseball commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis to keep playing games.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” FDR wrote to Landis.

Whether it’s a global war or a global pandemic, sports, it seems, always steps up to the plate.

Thank you again to all of the athletes and coaches and commissioners and athletics directors who worked so hard to play the games that helped us endure the worst year of our lives.

This column first appeared on Email me at Hit me up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and HD 101.1-2