Aside from regular interactions with family, friends and coworkers, the aspect of my “normal” life I have missed the most over the past few months has been sports. This may sound insane to the apathetic or those unsullied by sports fanaticism, but to say that sports is a central tenet of American life for so many would not be hyperbole.
For as long as I can remember, sports have remained as steadfast as the stars, marking the seasons and ringing in each new year with yet another opening day. Fans across the world gear up for every new season not simply to witness incredible feats of athleticism, but because athletic competition is one of the purest forms of hope, effort and triumph.
In his famous speech announcing the United States’ plans to send a man to the Moon in 1962, President John F. Kennedy used the annual football game between Rice University and the University of Texas to illustrate the nation’s resolve to overcome challenges.
“Why does Rice play Texas?” Kennedy asked a crowd of 45,000 people gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Throughout American history, sports have provided average citizens with hope and given the nation a respite during difficult times. Baseball fans living at the height of the Great Depression followed their favorite teams on the radio even if they could no longer afford to attend games. In the early days of U.S. involvement in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave team owners the green light to play, calling athletes a “definite recreation asset to at least 20 million of their fellow citizens,” which he called “thoroughly worthwhile.”
More recently, we have witnessed the power sports have to galvanize and unite communities in the wake of tragedy or tribulation. Cities have rallied behind their teams time and time again following events such as the terrorist attack on 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.
It may seem like a small consolation, but as COVID-19 continues to ravage the country — taking more than 160,000 lives and leaving millions jobless — I have often considered the tremendous relief sports could provide to those desperate for a bit of hope. How fitting that the thing that has given so many Americans a “chance for recreation” was the very thing that kickstarted our nationwide shutdown.
I’ll be the first to admit how much I long to take in a baseball game from the bleachers at UCCU Ballpark or enjoy a Dr. Pepper while watching the Wolverines at the UCCU Center — but I’ll also be the first to admit that Utah Valley University, the athletic department and the Western Athletic Conference made the right decision to cancel and postpone the fall 2020 season.
I have been able to get to know some of UVU’s tremendous student-athletes while covering their teams and I recognize the desire to compete and excel that drives each of them. My heart broke for these athletes when the WAC made the decision to cancel spring sports. I couldn’t help but think of the athletes who had so much riding on this season — postseason tournament berths, individual records and possibly a chance to continue their athletic careers at a professional level.
While professional teams have the weight to unite entire cities behind something, nothing is more inspiring than the path taken by thousands of student-athletes every year — amateurs who have dedicated their lives to their craft in the pursuit of excellence. College athletics is a cross section of the very best of humanity, an arena where anyone can achieve greatness through determination, grit and perseverance.
We have seen prominent NCAA athletes express their desire to play this fall, willing to take on whatever risks the coronavirus may pose to their health. Others point out that young, healthy athletes would face almost no risk even if they became infected.
It begs the question, “Why cancel the season?”
The answer is neither an admission of defeat nor the result of a lack of effort. Athletic department staff members have no doubt been working tirelessly over the past six months to make a fall season happen. Researchers have been working around the globe to develop practices to prevent the spread of coronavirus and treatments to help those recovering from it. Coaches and players have continued training to ensure they are ready to compete at the drop of a hat.
To put it simply, the reason to cancel the season is that despite all of these efforts, we still don’t understand how the coronavirus could impact student-athletes long term and don’t have the infrastructure in place to confidently protect these athletes from contracting the virus. Don’t think that canceling the fall season is a shortcut or a cop-out though. The NCAA and universities have a herculean task ahead of them to make sure financial aid and eligibility protections will be provided to student-athletes and any number of unforeseen issues of mental health and financial sustainability will have to be addressed.
UVU could have thrown caution to the wind, hoping that our assumptions about player safety turn out to be true, but they chose to put health and safety first, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
So, for the time being, Wolverine fans will have to place their hope in the continuing endurance of ordinary people who find new ways to press on in the midst of monumental uncertainty. I can’t say when we will be able to enjoy a game from the stands again, but I can be certain that student-athletes and coaches, at UVU and across the country, continue to perfect their craft and will be ready — whenever that time comes — to inspire us once again.
(Photo by Cameron Hunsaker)
Valley Life Editor