For an American sporting culture accustomed to playing through pain and preserving the billions of dollars and countless livelihoods within it, the coronavirus began merely as background noise. A distraction, as a football coach might term it.
One year and countless warning flags, shutdowns and false starts removed from March 2020, we know better.
COVID-19 vs. Sports was no contest.
It’s easy to forget the fog of uncertainty that framed those uncertain days of late February and early March, as the virus snaked through a city in China, found its way to Europe and eventually landed on our shores.
As spring training began and NBA All-Stars convened in Chicago, it was an abstraction, a segment on a mid-February newscast competing for your attention with the New Hampshire primary. As Senior Nights commenced across college basketball amid the anticipation of February giving way to March, a White House task force, helmed by the vice president, was assembled.
Louder, now: A death at a nursing home near Seattle. Typically lighthearted morning clubhouse meetings in Arizona and Florida now included doctors, discussing this new virus. Bodybags in Italy. Is it silly to ponder who’s on the NCAA tournament bubble when we’re relearning how to wash our hands?
The Ivy League, canceling its tournament? Sure, they’re smart, but what does it matter, really? Governors and health officials and this scratchy-voiced immunologist named Fauci and why aren’t they starting this NBA game in Oklahoma City?
And then, after 48 hours that seemed to move exponentially faster, silence.
As the sports world marks the first anniversary of when COVID-19 shuttered the games we play for months, USA TODAY Sports revisits the unsettling days and frantic hours when an entire industry reluctantly agreed to what it’s typically loath to do:
The Ivy League men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were 10 days away when Robin Harris began mapping out the scenarios.
Harris, the league’s executive director, operates from a different priority set than her fellow commissioners, who preside over Power Five conferences. The Ivy League does not measure its revenue in billions, and in coming months, it proved it does not regard its athletes as essential workers.
By March 4, the coronavirus had her staff working double time for the March 13-15 four-team tournaments at Harvard, formulating contingencies in the event certain teams couldn’t participate, deciding whether fans would be allowed to attend and if replacement teams were needed in the event of outbreaks.
She presented proposals to the league’s athletic directors, but by March 6, university presidents wanted to get involved. After all, their campuses were home to a trove of elite epidemiologists, public health experts and infectious disease specialists.
Why not tap their expertise?
“It was such a crazy week,” Harris recalled to USA TODAY Sports, “filled with so many unknowns, and I developed such an incredible trust of the medical experts providing information to our presidents.
“They would predict something. And it would happen.”
Internally, the league was angling toward a shutdown. In the rest of the sports world, comprehending COVID-19 was a far slower process – which forced a hastier retreat.
At first, not even governments could make the dominoes fall.
On March 5, the San Jose Sharks defied the wishes of Santa Clara County public health officials who recommended large events be canceled, and 14,000 fans witnessed a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
The crowd included an elected official, Walnut Creek Mayor Loella Haskew, whose husband, Ralph, told USA TODAY Sports that the coronavirus would not deter them: “We’re not stopping life. Not at all.”
By that weekend, as 17 states confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a nursing home near Seattle suffered through a fatal outbreak, a new reality began to assert itself.
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ workout March 6 was preceded by a coronavirus information meeting, after which a handful of players, playfully but presciently, informed reporters it was only a matter of time before they’d be booted from the clubhouse for good.
“How do we handle it?” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts asked about the virus. “I don’t know yet.”
A day later, the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies announced players would no longer personally sign autographs for fans at spring training in Florida; instead, pre-signed balls would be distributed. Emblematic of the country’s ad hoc approach to the emerging virus, other ballparks saw autographs freely exchanged.
“You take more precautions, I’d say,” Frank LaMacchia, a Seattle-based fan at spring training in Arizona told USA TODAY Sports, “but you have to live your life.”
That same day, the NBA sent a memo to teams ordering them to make arrangements with an infectious disease specialist and COVID-19 testing facility in their market to figure out how few bodies would be necessary to stage a game.
Sunday, March 8 brought a swifter dose of reality: Indian Wells, the celebrated tennis tournament that annually lures the top women’s and men’s players to California’s Coachella Valley, was canceled when Riverside County declared a public health emergency after a resident tested positive for the coronavirus.
Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic – all sent packing.
Which professional sports leagues have managed the pandemic most efficiently?
USA Today Sports’ Dan Wolken and Nancy Armour breaks down which professional sports league managed the pandemic most effectively.
Come March 9, a collective action: MLB, the NBA, NHL and MLS jointly announced all media and nonessential employees would be barred from locker rooms and clubhouses. Though interviews would be 6 feet away, the games would go on.
Until they didn’t.
The Ivy League’s Harris said her office was juggling “an incredibly fluid situation” that changed daily. “And then, it started to change more frequently than that.”
How quick? Harris spent the first part of March 10 debriefing men’s and women’s coaches on plans for a virus-mitigated tournament.
By the afternoon, the Ivy League’s tourney and all other winter and spring sports were canceled.
“It was truly heartbreaking,” she said. “We had teams poised for incredible success. But I felt in my gut, they were the right decisions, with a public health crisis we didn’t even know how large it would become.”
In Ohio, the state reported its third case of COVID-19, and in response, Gov. Mike DeWine recommended barring fans from indoor sporting events, including two sites for the upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The actions felt like outliers, both sobering and a little harsh. As it turns out, they hardly prepared us for March 11, 2020.
10:45 a.m. EST: One hour into the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on coronavirus response, Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., asks immunologist Anthony Fauci a question about crowds at sporting events that proves prescient: “Is the NBA underreacting, or is the Ivy League overreacting?” Fauci’s response: “We would recommend that there not be large crowds. If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it. But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds would be at risk to spread.”
12:26 p.m.: The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.
1:15 p.m.: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee bans events with more than 250 people in King County, leaving the Seattle Mariners locked out of their March 26 home opener and displacing MLS’ Seattle Sounders.
2:16 p.m.: The Golden State Warriors announce that, in consultation with San Francisco officials, their Thursday game against Brooklyn will be played without fans and events through March 21 at Chase Center – including a Post Malone concert – will be postponed.
2:39 p.m.: DeWine, the Ohio governor, says his recommendations against indoor gatherings, including multiple NCAA tournament sites, will soon become an order, saying the state is “doing the things we’re doing because we have the potential to become like Italy.” (Italy surpasses 1,000 COVID-19 deaths the next day.)
4:30 p.m.: NCAA President Mark Emmert declares the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be contested without fans, “only essential staff and limited family attendance.”
6 p.m.: On this day, four of the USA’s six coronavirus fatalities come in King County, Washington, and Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager’s reaction reflects his city’s reality: “This is a major, major, major event. Not just in Seattle but the world. The information is out there, and (teammates) are absolutely following it closely. The people of Seattle are far more educated than I am. And you have to trust them.”
7 p.m.: Mariners manager Scott Servais says the club will have the site of its March 26 opener – probably somewhere in the Phoenix area – settled within 48 hours. “I do believe we will play a ballgame on opening day,” he says. “I’m sure we’ll play the entirety of the season. You just have to be willing and able to adjust.”
8:10 p.m.: Oklahoma City Thunder fans rise to their feet, anticipating the tipoff against the Utah Jazz, but the buzz fades as Thunder Vice President Donnie Strack huddles with the three game officials, and point guard Chris Paul chats briefly with Jazz counterpart Joe Ingles.
8:18 p.m.: After the Thunder and Jazz head, without explanation, to their locker rooms, prompting boos from the crowd, a mélange of entertainment – a junior dance team, a singer, team mascot Rumble the Bison – takes the floor, aiming to keep the crowd distracted.
8:37 p.m.: Finally, clarity, kind of: Thunder-Jazz postponed, due to “unforeseen circumstances,” according to the arena public address announcer.
9 p.m.: President Donald Trump addresses the nation in a live broadcast from the Oval Office, announcing a suspension on travel from Europe and vowing that if Americans are vigilant, “the virus will not have a chance against us.”
9:27 p.m.: The Athletic reports that Jazz center Rudy Gobert has tested positive for the coronavirus.
9:30 p.m.: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspends the season, effective at the conclusion of that night’s games, citing “a player on the Utah Jazz” testing positive for COVID-19.
10 p.m.: Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg is taken to an Indianapolis hospital after suffering from flu-like symptoms on the bench during the Huskers’ Big Ten tournament game. A camera catches him, head in hand, as assistant Armon Gates indulges in some hand sanitizer. The Huskers are briefly quarantined in their postgame locker room as Hoiberg is diagnosed with influenza A.
10:37 p.m.: The remainder of the Big East Conference tournament games at Madison Square Garden will be reduced to 200 fans for each school, “due to the rapid progression of COVID-19 and escalating developments nationally, as well as through guidance we have received from medical experts, local authorities and other sources,” Commissioner Val Ackerman says.
10:38 p.m.: What would have been the final NBA game before the season shut down – New Orleans at Sacramento – is canceled minutes before tipoff when it’s determined one of the referees worked a Utah Jazz game. The NBA uses a phrase that will become far too familiar: “out of an abundance of caution.”
Midnight: Medical workers, some clad in personal protective equipment, enter the area outside the Jazz’s visiting locker room, prepared to test the team for coronavirus.
Rudy Gobert and Jazz-Thunder remain the inflection point for the sports shutdown, and rightfully so. The shock of it all didn’t immediately shutter the industry, even as the world learned on the morning of March 12 that Gobert’s teammate, Donovan Mitchell, also tested positive for the coronavirus, a chilling example of community spread amplified nationwide.
In a morning appearance on the ACC Network, Commissioner John Swofford said the Atlantic Coast Conference’s men’s basketball quarterfinals would proceed as scheduled.
By 12:15 p.m. EST, the conference reversed course and canceled the tournament, citing “continuing conversations surrounding the fluidity of COVID-19.” The SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and almost every other major conference did likewise.
In New York, Creighton and St. John’s got ready for their noon tipoff in the Big East quarterfinals. Their personal effects were stored away by the time phones started buzzing with word of cancellations elsewhere.
The Bluejays and Red Storm, unknowingly, were the last teams standing.
“The league made the pivot to allow 300-400 fans per team. That’s not very many. But we thought that was the only concession needed to be made to play the game,” recalled Greg McDermott, Creighton’s coach. “Once we started the game, we thought we were good.”
As the teams exited the Garden floor at halftime, Creighton associate athletic director Mark Burgers pulled McDermott aside, telling him to hold tight. The game might get called.
Minutes later, Stu Jackson, the Big East’s executive associate commissioner, was in the Bluejays’ locker room, telling the nation’s No. 7 team the tournament was over.
It was 1:04 p.m. The Bluejays, who had many family members in New York for the tournament, decided to stay into the early evening to spend time with loved ones.
It did not feel like goodbye, forever.
After all, right at that moment, a half-dozen Grapefruit League exhibition games, some filled to capacity with fans, were getting underway in Florida. If Toronto vs. the Canadian national juniors team could go on in Dunedin, surely all this couldn’t be permanent, right?
Yet the gears were grinding to a halt behind the scenes.
The NHL announced a shutdown shortly after 1:30, right around the time Major League Baseball was conferencing with all 30 owners, then the players’ association. By 3 p.m., they’d announced the March 26 start of the season would be postponed “by at least two weeks” and “remain flexible as events warrant.”
A rainstorm had washed out the day’s Arizona exhibitions, but there was one night game in Florida – Orioles-Twins at Fort Myers. Minus clarity, the Orioles hopped a bus for the 75-mile drive south, only to turn back almost upon arrival.
“Right now,” said first baseman and union rep Chris Davis, “it almost doesn’t seem real.”
The NCAA – which had its biggest moneymaker, March Madness, on deck – still had not weighed in. Minus any announcement on the basketball tournaments, two of its bluest bloods decided to fill the vacuum.
At 2 p.m., Duke and Kansas announced they were shutting down their athletic teams. “Based on the recommendation of our medical professionals, we have canceled all athletic travel indefinitely. In addition, all home and away athletic events have been suspended indefinitely,” Kansas athletics director Jeff Long said in a statement.
Your move, NCAA.
Finally, at 4:07 p.m., the expected but stunning announcement came from Indianapolis: There would be no March Madness, no winter or spring championships, a sweeping cancellation and an abrupt end to thousands of athletic livelihoods.
It was a highly personal moment delivered in the most impersonal fashion. In New York, the Bluejays saw the news when everyone else did – on Twitter.
It was clear a societal shuttering was on deck, so the team quickly arranged flights home for its players on the Eastern Seaboard. The rest flew back to Omaha, getting home from there.
A season with Final Four aspirations ended with a scattering, not a salutation.
That ended 48 hours of “incredible external pushback and condemnation” in the wake of the Ivy League’s decision, Harris said.
Yet it felt like anything but vindication. Not when careers, jobs, dreams were all lost. Not when a national mass casualty event felt imminent, one that has killed more than half a million people in the USA.
“I would rather we’d have been wrong,” Harris said, “and overreacted.
“And we did not.”