Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: In these challenging times, athletes continue to inspire

As Bostonians, we are no strangers to the unifying power of sports. When our society is thrust into a period of danger or uncertainty, we often turn to our favorite players and teams for comfort, productive distraction and community. My bedroom still adorns a “Boston Strong” poster from the unforgettable 2013 season when the Red Sox proved themselves as champions.

But where do we turn when the sports world comes to a screeching halt?

In the midst of this global pandemic, no corner of the sporting world has been spared. On both the professional and collegiate levels, basketball, football, baseball, soccer, hockey, tennis, golf, auto racing and marathons have all been impacted. The list continues to grow as games and tournaments have been postponed and canceled, seasons delayed and suspended and dreams are put on hold.

The COVID-19 outbreak represents a threat we have never faced before. The world is transitioning into various levels of isolation and social distancing, and sports fans must find other sources of respite and belonging. While an infectious virus presents challenges far more significant than the cancelation of sporting events, it is nonetheless a disappointing consequence for many.

We may not have March Madness and Spring Training to keep us on our feet, but despite the extraordinary circumstances, the sports world nevertheless has continued to bring out the best in people. 

When the NBA announced its decision to suspend its season on March 11, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban reacted on live television. Even in the first moments after he learned about the news, Cuban thought of the thousands of people off the court whose lives would be impacted by this change. He committed to “put together a program” for the hourly workers who would lose work and money as a result of the league’s actions. 

Since Cuban’s comments, several other organizations and athletes have made similar commitments to do their part to support those who will be financially impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

On Tuesday, MLB announced that its teams would donate a combined $30 million to cover the wages of its ballpark workers. In a statement, Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote, “motivated by desire to help some of the most valuable members of the baseball community, each Club has committed $1 million.”

This is an excellent step. Now pay minor leaguers, too.

In lieu of league-wide efforts, NBA stars Blake Griffin, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Love each announced that they would donate $100,000 to the workers at their home stadiums and arenas. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert — the first NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus — said he will donate $500,000 to various causes, including arena employees, Utah and Oklahoma families that have been impacted, and his home country of France.

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer is doing his part to raise money and offer levity as well. He hosted a Sandlot-style charity wiffle ball game with a few other major leaguers in Arizona over the weekend, which was live-streamed on social media. The proceeds will be donated to support MLB employees who are out of work because of the virus.

I understand and echo the disappointment of sports fans (and writers) everywhere in the wake of widespread cancellations. There is no question that each of these leagues made the right decision, but it is nonetheless upsetting. 

But even with no games to distract us from the troubling deluge of daily updates and news alerts, there are myriad examples from which we can draw inspiration. Athletes, teams and organizations are stepping up in critical and creative ways to support their fans and employees, putting people before policy or finances. 

Nobody knows how long it will be before the sports world emerges from this chaos and returns to normalcy. The Boston Marathon was postponed for the first time in its 124 years, and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are in danger of being canceled. We could see hockey and basketball seasons extend deep into the summer, and baseball’s Fall Classic could take on new meaning as we witness the first Thanksgiving weekend World Series. 

At this point, nothing is impossible.

So in this time of uncertainty and unease, I urge my fellow sports fans to join me in doing the following:

First, be sad that sports have been put on pause. While the coronavirus has caused repercussions more serious than canceling games, that does not invalidate the feelings of millions of fans, athletes and journalists for whom sports provides entertainment, employment or even just an escape from the troubling realities like the one in which we currently live.

Second, let’s all take a moment to applaud the selfless and generous commitments of the many teams, owners and players who are offering their time and money to those who will be hurt by the fallout of his pandemic. In times like these, we need to pull together. Many of these stars are starting to use their platforms in the best ways possible.

And lastly, please, continue to employ proper health and safety practices. Stay home if you can, wash your hands and look out for others. Even if you are not at risk, take this seriously for those who are. The sooner we defeat this deadly virus and return to real life, the sooner we get our beloved sports series back.

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