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Keith Strudler: The Most Important Year in Sports History

This is the time when you’d expect a commentary about the sports year in review, or the best and biggest stories on and off the field in 2020. But, to state the obvious, that doesn’t really work this year. As we all know, the biggest story in sports this year is Covid. How Covid changed this, cancelled that, and pretty much made sports an absolute nightmare, even when it went well, relatively speaking. From the first cancellations in March, which was the Ivy League basketball tournament, to the growing list of cancelled college bowl games this week, it’s been like swimming in Jell-O, if the Jell-O could also make you really sick.

Of course, there have been other stories in sport this year. If you think back to pre-Covid, which I find nearly impossible to do, you’ll remember that Kobe Bryant died tragically in January in a helicopter crash. Throughout the summer and beyond, professional and elite athletes spoke publicly and purposefully about racial justice, sometimes from the confines of a sports bubble. We saw all kinds of new broadcasting technology, Patrick Mahomes signed a gazillion dollar contract with Kansas City, Sarah Fuller scored points for Vanderbilt football, and someone other than the big three won the US Open Men’s Tennis tournament. But in the end, by March, 2020 sports was all Covid, all the time.

Which also meant that for most of 2020, sports fell into three categories – sports that played, sports that played in a bubble, and sports that didn’t play at all. Included in the final category are the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the New York City Marathon, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and over half of the Major League Baseball season. Also included were youth spring soccer seasons, junior high track, and countless of other ways that kids and adults use sport as a way to make life more enjoyable. Just ask my kids, who are spending winter not playing basketball other than on a PlayStation. The sports that played did so with varying levels of success and critique, illuminated by divided camps that became increasingly dogmatic in their singular perspectives on what was clearly a multi-dimensional problem. Maybe the only sports that operated well played in a fully contained environment – like the NBA or MLS or the Tour de France in something a traveling bubble. If we learned two things, it’s that one, you can keep the virus at bay by sealing off the outside world, and two, that can’t last very long. Disney is a fine place for a couple days. It’s far less enjoyable for few months under lock and key.

And so pretty much everyone in sports is excited to put 2020 and its conventions and disappointments behind us. The challenge is that we can turn the calendar, but 2020 may not be ready to quit us. Already, some 2021 spring sporting events have postponed, like the Indian Wells tennis tournament scheduled for March. There’s serious consideration of whether March Madness is possible, and even the postponed Summer Olympics are going to look a lot different. So until we’re all vaccinated, which does not seem imminent, sports will not be normal. That means more empty stadiums, shortened seasons, and a whole new understanding of what it means to test positive. Remember steroids? Who can imagine longing for the days of an underground Russian doping program?

So I suppose the question isn’t what was the biggest sports moment in 2020, or how is next year going to be more normal, but really, what will the future normal look like in sports? How much will Covid not just change today’s sports, but the way we play and watch from now on? How many kids might never go back to teams, or maybe never join a club sports program – which has its pros and cons for sure. How many colleges will scale back sports programs and never bring them back? How many people might never want to sit in a crowded stadium ever again, kind of like not wanting to spend money after living through the depression? It’s hard to say what of Covid is just temporary, and what might change the sports world forever. That is question we have to consider. Not whether we play rec basketball this winter. But what happens to these same kids five years from now, all scarred by the realization that what we once assumed permanent is actually ethereal. Will they ever come out of the basement to play?

That’s the sports question of the year, one that won’t be answered anytime soon. And one that makes 2020 perhaps the most important year in sports history.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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