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To play or not to play

To play or not to play, that is the question. That’s the question for college football teams in bowl games, for college and NBA basketball teams that are basically fielding players from local playgrounds. And it’s the question for pretty much every youth or school league that’s entering into one protocol or another. That is sports in the age of Omicron, where you never know who might play in the Pinstripe Bowl or the Guaranteed Rate Bowl or any number of superfluous games that were once seen as a reward for college players and a way for coaches to extend their practice seasons. Already, a whole bunch of teams have pulled out, new teams have jumped in, and some games – five so far – have been cancelled altogether. In one example, Memphis flew all the way out to Hawaii for a bowl game only for the University of Hawaii to tell them they can’t play. Obviously, that scenario could have been worse – it could have been, say Shreveport, Louisiana. Rutgers filled in for Texas A&M to play against Wake Forest in the Gator Bowl, which is kind of like flying coach after selling your private jet. And the four college football playoff teams are basically crossing their fingers and trying to make sure they don’t lose either too many players or certain key players before their games on the 31st.

The same is happening in college basketball, where any team can play anyone anytime. Syracuse cancelled their game against Cornell, only then to reschedule them tonight because Georgia Tech pulled out. That’s after Cornell’s game against Hartford yesterday was cancelled. Looking at a college basketball schedule is like looking at the flight board at an airport. More teams grounded than in the air. And knowing who’s actually playing on an NBA roster is a near full time job. I can go on and on, including holding out hope that I’ll be able to run in the master’s cross country championships in San Diego in January. Given my geography and having two school aged kids, I figure I’m about 50/50 to make it there.

That is where we are at the close of 2021 – seemingly worse off than a year ago, when we were sure that this was a bad as we could possibly get – and next season would finally be normal. As much as I love to do year in review sports commentaries, the reality is, this is still pretty much it. Whether it was the Olympics, or the somewhat bubbled NCAA basketball championships, most everything carried the shadow of the pandemic that seems to be transitioning from the beginning of the end to the end of the beginning. And all the while, we’re hearing that perhaps the new variant isn’t so bad, or maybe people don’t need to quarantine so long, which would have obvious ramifications for sports teams playing a full schedule. To best sum up sports in 2021, at least at this moment, is that it simply isn’t okay.

Perhaps the most common question I either hear about the pandemic, sports and otherwise, is when is it going to end. I’m saying that as someone who Googles that very phrase every day or two. I think that’s how most all of us feel about how Covid has impacted sports. When can we, and when can our kids just go back to playing. This isn’t some defiant exposition or without acknowledgement that Covid has done more horrible things than cancel some soccer games. But it’s a recognition that for those who take particular joy in the art of athletic expression and competition, it’s becoming almost too much to bear.

Which is why a lot of folks have already stopped worrying, particularly youth and high school sports around the country, even as we move indoors. It’s why marathons still have lines of applicants, and pickle ball leagues are filled. It’s why club futsal is packed and rec basketball is filled to capacity. And it’s why I’m going to a Houston Rockets game on Friday with my kids – masked of course – even though I know it’s safer not to. And as much as I’m really cautious about all things Covid and sometimes find myself wearing a mask alone in my car, I’m not so sure that’s entirely wrong – at least not medically speaking.

So that’s our year in sport for 2021. A bunch of folks who just want to play, and a whole lot of uncertainty of whether we should – and when. To play or not to play – that, sadly, is still the question.

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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