On that fateful Wednesday, when I first heard the news—that Bellarmine was joining the cavalcade of schools around the state shifting to online methods to slow the spread of the coronavirus—I was ecstatic.
I was so happy, in fact, that I texted my dad in all-caps: “WE’RE FREEEEEE!”
The source of my excitement was not the prospect of attending classes in my pajamas. Neither was I looking forward to leaving my friends for the foreseeable future, and it certainly had nothing to do with spending what would ultimately be the final two months of my junior year at home in Boyle County, Kentucky.
No, my happiness was for one reason and one reason only. I thought, for that brief, blissful moment, that I was going to get to spend all of March Madness—the BEST three weeks of the year—on my couch watching basketball. As far as I was concerned, that’s a sports fan’s ultimate dream.
Of course, it didn’t quite play out that way. Within 24 hours, the sports world imploded, beginning with NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert’s COVID-19 diagnosis and culminating late Thursday afternoon with the official cancellation of the entire 2020 NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball National Championships.
That was when it hit me.
In less than a day, my elation faded into cold, bitter dread for the coming weeks. The full reality of the pandemic’s implications began to set in, and that included no sports period for March and beyond.
This reality, of course, was much more serious than the cancellation of a few basketball games. With more than 170,000 confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide and at least 3,400 deaths reported already—and these numbers climbing by the day, according to the Centers for Disease Control—sports should be the least of our concerns. Giving up a few months’ worth of entertainment is obviously worth it when the health and safety of our friends and family are at stake.
If anything, it should have been done much sooner. But if it matters so little, why does it hurt so much?
If you’re a sports fan, how could it not?
“I feel robbed of the entire experience,” said sophomore Ethan Purdy, a University of Louisville fan who had been gearing up for his team to make a tournament run. “I know it’s nobody’s fault, but it’s just a really tough pill to swallow.”
The heartbreak of “March Sadness” has even crossed party lines, uniting UofL fans like Purdy with rival University of Kentucky fans like me and senior Gabe Smith.
“The first four days of the tournament are probably my favorite of the whole year,” Smith told me. “I’m completely on board with trying to stop the spread of the virus, but selfishly, it’s really disappointing to not get that month of incredible basketball.”
This is a feeling that many self-abased sports fans like me have had to confront recently—the idea that lingering sports grief in times like this is a sign of selfishness. But I’m here to tell you: it’s okay to be sad.
The fact is, our generation has been thoroughly spoiled by the passion and pervasiveness of televised sports. Since I first laid eyes on ESPN as a child—and I started young, as a Kentucky fan born and bred in the shadow of Rupp Arena—I can’t remember a time when there weren’t sports on TV.
In the fall, there was football to watch. In the cold winter months, Coach Calipari’s dribble drive offense kept me warm. And as soon as the Final Four wrapped up, it was summer, and that meant baseball season. From the peaks of joy to the depths of disappointment, it was always there. Any time life got me down, I got through it because I knew only had to wait until the next game—then, for a few hours, all my troubles would fade away.
And now? For the first time in my life, the next game is nowhere in sight. For all we know, it could be late fall before the CDC deems it safe for a large crowd of people to gather at a sporting event again. But however long the wait may be, it will be worth it.
We won’t let this virus beat us. We’re going to make the smart play and keep social distancing until it’s gone. We’re going to pass those online classes and wash our pajamas on the weekends.
Then, when it’s all over and next March finally rolls around, we’ll get our one shining moment. And I’ll feel that child-like freedom once again.