Danehy: The Pandemic and Sports

Thanks to the pandemic, college athletes will forever ask themselves: What if?

Four decades and about a hundred pounds ago, I was a college athlete. Certainly nothing special, but hard-working and loving every minute of the experience. I was so dedicated that I once played an entire college basketball game the same day that I had my wisdom teeth pulled. My sockets were stuffed with gauze and I looked like a freakin' chipmunk. The best (worst) part was that three previous broken noses had left me pretty much unable to breathe through my nose, so every breath I took was through clenched teeth like I was doing a really bad imitation of a pissed-off Clint Eastwood.

At Cochise I played tennis, basketball and baseball (they didn't have a football team). I never missed a practice and never missed a game. But there was this one Saturday in late February. The baseball team was participating in a season-opening tournament in Tucson and the basketball team had a big game against a conference powerhouse in Douglas that night. Naturally, I wanted to play in both games.

I drove to Tucson and pitched a couple scoreless innings in our 2-1 win over Central Arizona. Then I drove down to Douglas (observing the strict 55 miles per hour speed limit of the day) and suited up for the basketball game. I was an old-style point guard (lots of assists, not many points) and I was decent enough to be a starter. But when the coach asked me if I had played baseball that day, I said that I had. I didn't get to play that night and we lost a close one.

Even though it was just one game, all these years later—through college and career(s), marriage and children, coaching and championships—I still occasionally wonder what would have happened if I had played that night. Maybe we would have won. Maybe I would have stunk up the joint and we would have lost by even more. But take my petty little mind-itch and multiply it by two to a double-digit power to try to imagine what the athletes who are being denied the chance to compete for their ultimate goal will go through for the rest of their lives.

Take Arizona's Lucia Alonso, for example. She left her native Spain to come to Tucson and in her first two years playing in McKale, her teams went a combined 20-40. Last year's team finished eighth in the Pac-12 before catching fire in the WNIT. Now, her senior year, it has all come together. They beat multiple Top 10 teams, including a Top 5 team. They put themselves in a position to play home games in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and very possibly reach the Sweet 16. But now, she'll never know. For the rest of her life, she'll never know.

She and hundreds of other athletes who have spent most of their lives building to a special moment will never know how it would have turned out. There is also the added pain and finality of not having known that you were playing in your last-ever game.

Even with the acceleration of protective measures that have been introduced since the tourney was canceled, I still believe that the original plan (both with the Pac-12 and the NCAA) to hold the tournament games in empty arenas would have been sufficient. They could have tested all of the athletes, coaches, and refs, eliminated anyone who tested positive and had the rest sign liability waivers and promise to self-quarantine after their participation came to an end. Hey, there's a small chance that you (a college athlete) can catch this virus and if that small chance comes true, there's an even tinier chance that it will seriously affect you. Where do I sign?

I find Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski's support for canceling the NCAAs to be somewhat disingenuous. It's easy for you to say, Coach. You've won five national championships and this year's team was just so-so. But what about the guys at Baylor, Dayton, or Gonzaga, schools that had as good a chance as any to win a first national title for their school? There will forever be a hole in their hearts, one caused in part by what I still consider to be an overreaction.

Maybe someday in the distant future, the prevailing wisdom will be that it was prudent to have shut down the NCAAs. And maybe that wisdom will stretch to include the abrupt ending of the spring seasons of golf, tennis, baseball, track & field and softball—sports that are played outdoors with almost no human contact whatsoever. Then I will be judged to have been wrong (not a first).

But even if it was the exact right thing to do to cancel those tournaments, it's not going to change how crappy those athletes are going to feel for the rest of their lives. (Cornell's women's and men's hockey teams were both Number 1 in the country and were looking to pull off an unprecedented championship double. They'll never know.)

I get it. Sports are just sports; they're not life or death. But for those aforementioned athletes who feel that dull ache inside, let me just tell you that, in time, it will shrink and recede from your consciousness, But it will never, ever, EVER go away completely.

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