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REKULAPELLI: On a world without sports

Sports across the country take a hiatus as all efforts shift to managing the escalating coronavirus pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip on a worried nation, people across the United States have filled their gas tanks, pantries and cabinets in anticipation of a lockdown. Yet among the pantries laden with non-perishables and the cabinets flush with toilet paper, one thing remains empty — the place sports holds in many fans’ hearts. 

After center Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 March 11 before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA decided to suspend all play until further notice. This triggered a domino effect that led to the cancellation of the college basketball season and national championship tournament, the postponement of the MLB and NHL seasons and the eventual cancellation of all NCAA winter and spring championships. 

Although these measures were rightly taken to slow the spread of a virus that has infected over 8,700 individuals across the country as of Wednesday night, it is tough to forego the positive effects sports can have on our community in times of hardship. Virginia alumnus Chris Dembitz — who runs the comedic Phony Bennett account on Twitter, which offers hilarious takes on Virginia sports to his 19,000 followers — knows this as well as anyone. 

“For me, sports have always been there through the most challenging times of my life, offering an escape, a two- or three-hour distraction from my troubles,” Dembitz said. “They don’t make your worries disappear, but for a while, you can push those to the back burner while you care about something lighter.”

There is something unique about watching a group of people donning your city or university’s name try to shoot a ball into a hoop or hit a ball into the stands. You can lose yourself in the rhythm of the game, analyzing every cut, every spin, every bounce of the ball. You yell your own plays or call fouls with a foolish hope that the players, coaches and referees on the other side of the television hear your pleas. 

Yet, even more so, you lose yourself in the narratives — the feel-good stories that captivate a nation, like Syracuse All-ACC guard Tiana Mangakahia and her valiant fight against breast cancer, or Virginia men’s basketball’s redemption tour that turned a historic loss to a No. 16 seed into a national-championship run for the ages. Whether or not you’re a fan of Syracuse or Virginia — or even basketball itself — is secondary to the true tales of resiliency that sports show us — tales that can motivate and inspire us during this time of global struggle. 

“In troubling times, we need to work even harder to find the beauty in life, to find a reason to smile, a reason to cheer and even a reason to laugh,” Dembitz said. “Sports gives us that opportunity.”

Even in the context of this crisis, sports have still found a way to play a role. 

“I think for a lot of folks, the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak was brought into focus by the cancellation of sports,” Dembitz said. “For sports fans who haven’t been personally affected by the outbreak just yet, this carried weight.”

For example, when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was cancelled March 12, many Virginia fans were heartbroken, especially given the eight-game winning streak the Cavaliers were on. The defending national champions looked poised to make a deep run in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, but now the Virginia faithful will never know how far the 2019-2020 Cavaliers could’ve gone. 

But the fact that March Madness — an event that garnered $933 million in revenue last year — was cancelled, has allowed coaches to use their platform to laud the decision and emphasize public safety.

“No one wanted it to end this way, but in light of all the uncertainty and people who would be put at risk, I support and understand the NCAA cancelling [March Madness],” Coach Tony Bennett said. “It is important in these circumstances for us to consider the bigger perspective and act toward the greater good.”

There is no doubt that many of us will miss sports during this time of international hardship. Sports have given us some of our highest highs and some of our lowest lows. They have brought about stories that even the authors of fairy tales look at in awe. Most importantly, they have carried us through the inevitable moments when life throws a wrench in our plans. 

“I think we feel the loss of sports in trying times more than in good times, which speaks to their ultimate value to us,” Dembitz said. 

Yet, in this peculiar time where no balls are being bounced or laps being run, it is important that we realize the remarkable effects sports have on our lives. Sports will undoubtedly come back, but now knowing what a world without sports is like, you just might find yourself cheering a little louder, crying a little harder and smiling a lot more when they do.

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