Be upset. Be disappointed. Be depressed, anxious, unsure and devastated.
The global pandemic of the coronavirus is ripping identities from athletes, coaches and everybody whose day-to-day-lives revolve around sports.
It’s OK for all of us to feel hurt. For the rest of our lives, we’ll play the What-If Game with the spring of 2020 — what if the coronavirus didn’t become a pandemic and rob us all of sports — of opportunities to compete for titles and earn the eye of scouts? What if seniors, or sophomores in junior colleges, were able to compete and finish their careers on their own terms?
At Labette Community College, the pain extends to three programs — baseball and softball’s spring seasons and perhaps most agonizingly the women’s basketball team.
The women’s team had qualified for the national tournament for the first time since 2010 and the first time under first-year head coach Mitch Rolls.
On Monday, the NJCAA canceled all sports for the rest of the season, including the national tournament Labette was supposed to play in.
When I called Rolls to get his thoughts for a report on the NJCAA’s decision, I asked him how he was feeling.
“I’m going home and I want to punch a hole in the wall,” he said.
Labette had a very real chance to win a national title. Being a national champion in college is a lifelong memory. For many, it may represent one of a handful of true peaks in life that has too many valleys.
All of the Labette women’s basketball players and coaches instead will be left to wonder for the rest of their lives what could have been.
There are thousands, perhaps millions of stories like that around the country at all levels of athletics. Eight other KJCCC basketball teams alone will miss playing in national tournaments.
How many NBA players on final years of contracts are missing out on their last chances to prove their worth in the league?
How many baseball players fighting for MLB roster spots are missing spring training?
48 high school basketball teams in Kansas won their quarterfinal at the state tournament before KSHSAA — correctly — canceled the rest of the tournament.
How many spring athletes in junior colleges were catching fire in their sophomore seasons, just catching the eye of four-year scouts, before the season was canceled?
For athletes, it’s agonizing.
For coaches charged with consoling their players, this is Hell. They’re left with the impossible task of trying to explain why a season was robbed from their players by no fault of their own.
Ryan Phillips, the head coach of the Labette softball team, worked on a puzzle on Monday evening as he tried to cope. Alex Coplon, the school’s baseball coach, answered Trivial Pursuit cards by himself.
I’ll admit that the scope of my immediate future has me rattled. Since 2014, I’ve spent my days at the Parsons Sun covering games. It’s there I fraternize with the community. I’ve developed an intricate web of relationships that spans eight different schools, three counties and throughout the state.
My longform profiles and investigative reports can almost be universally traced back to something that happened at a game — a conversation I had with a coach, player or fan or something I witnessed on the court or field that stood out.
So what am I going to do for months on end with no sports to cover?
Well, the professional answer is that for the next week or so, I expect to still have plenty of news to cover with the fallout and reactions to cancellations and suspensions of play. When that news dries up, I’ll temporarily assist the news desk.
The true answer I have to the question of what I’ll do with my life, honestly, is an unknown I’m staring down. While I don’t dare to elevate my own uncertainty to the pain that athletes and coaches are facing with the tangible loss of their seasons, it’s often game coverage that motivates me out of bed some days.
Covering sports is my identity and I’m facing the reality of losing that for a time.
We’re all going through this together and the last few days have given me true hope. For starters, coaches from three different schools have bought or cooked me dinner over the last week as I’ve been swamped with coronavirus coverage. Those meals have been a needed, welcomed reprieve and a much-appreciated gesture from a community that has embraced me.
Millions of us in this country are facing identical times of reckoning. It’s on all of us to support one another as we square off against an unknown future with no end seemingly in sight.
Athletes, coaches, administrators and reporters will have their mental health tested in the coming months.
Be kind and compassionate; Not just to those you love, but to everybody in your community. While social distancing is a necessary measure in this country, nobody should have to go it alone.
It’s OK to feel however you do in response to sports coming to a halt. It’s also imperative to realize that the decisions being made by leagues are incredibly difficult and equally as necessary. We need to flatten the curve to ensure our hospitals and healthcare centers aren’t overwhelmed.
While some equate the fact that a high percentage of cases present with mild symptoms as a sign of overreaction, the exact opposite is true. Because the coronavirus often presents with mild symptoms like a cough or fever, that makes it more likely that those infected will unknowingly spread it to vulnerable populations like the eldery or those with underlying conditions that weaken the immune system.
If we want our sports back, follow the recommendations of the CDC and local health departments — wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings.
And one quick postscript.
When we come out on the other side of this pandemic — when the lights come back on in stadiums, arenas, fields and courthouses around the country, let’s remain as cognizant and compassionate to those who were battling mental health issues before the pandemic and who will still be battling afterwards.
Let’s all fight through this together and not leave anybody behind.