When I was in high school, my favorite show on television — aside from Dallas Cowboys games on Sunday — was “The Walking Dead.”
I loved it, and I wasn’t exactly in the minority. This was peak “Walking Dead” mind you, with all its melodrama, action, zombies and the practical special effects I have been geeking out about my entire life; it wasn’t yet the cash-grab, let’s-kill-Carl-and-Rick-for-ratings show it has become in recent years.
I had “Walking Dead” T-shirts, action figures, reprints of the comic books and everything else I could get my hands on, including a poster signed by David Morrissey and Michael Rooker, who played the villainous Governor and the incomparable Merle Dixon, respectively.
I couldn’t wait to watch the show on Sunday night with my dad, and when we weren’t watching it, I was thinking about it and even writing about it. Yes, I will admit to writing mediocre “Walking Dead” fan fiction. That is my cross to bear. It was nothing explicit or even that creative, but I enjoyed it.
I enjoyed imagining what living in that world — a world without the government, infrastructure and creature comforts we all hold dear — might be like and how its people might react to it. I think it’s a question many have tried to answer: What would people do if the world just stopped spinning one day?
Late Wednesday night and into Thursday, I feel like those of us in the sports biz got just a little taste of how that might feel.
Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert was our patient zero. Within 24 hours of Gobert’s coronavirus diagnosis, the NBA, the NCAA, the NHL, the MLS and the MLB had each announced postponements or cancellations of their events.
Some were cautiously optimistic, the NBA announcing it would reevaluate the situation in 30 days. Others shuttered their leagues entirely, the NCAA deciding to cancel not only March Madness, which would have celebrated its selection shows Sunday, but also the College World Series, which would have started in late May.
Within 48 hours of Gobert’s diagnosis, those sanctions were hitting closer to home.
The Gulf South Conference announced Friday it had suspended all spring athletic competitions, countable athletic-related activities and off-campus recruiting, placing sports at the University of West Florida on pause for an indefinite amount of time.
The NJCAA announced it, too, would suspend all spring athletic competition, including baseball and softball, through April 3. The Division I and Division II men’s and women’s basketball championships were postponed until April 20. Ranked fifth in the country, the Northwest Florida State College women’s basketball team was set to begin its quest for a national championship as a No. 3 seed against either 14th-seeded Odessa or 19th-seeded Chattanooga State at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday at the Rip Griffin Center in Lubbock, Texas.
And in perhaps the cruelest — and most crucial — blow of all, the Okaloosa County School District, in accordance with the Florida Department of Education’s recommendation, announced its schools would remain closed and extracurricular activities, including sports, canceled until at least March 30.
And even then, who is to say any of this will be over by April? The New York Times reported Friday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and epidemic experts from around the world conferred in February to model what might happen should COVID-19 reach the U.S., and one worst-case projection hypothesized the epidemic “could last months or even over a year.”
Now, the steps we’re taking — self-quarantining, social isolation and washing our hands until they fall off altogether — will help mitigate those worst-case scenarios, but where does that leave sports?
I know when compared to a public health crisis, basketball, baseball and football collectively amount to a hill of beans, but it’s a concern many of us share. Sports bring us together.
In the wake of 9/11, former President George Bush’s first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium was a triumphant moment that helped further put a healing country back together.
And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Saints safety Steve Gleason famously blocked an Atlanta punt that led to New Orleans’ first touchdown at the Superdome in almost 21 months, signaling a return to some sense of normalcy for a community that had been all but destroyed.
Even locally we’re provided with countless examples. In October 2018, South Walton and Freeport held a charity football game to raise donations and collect supplies for those in Bay County affected by Hurricane Michael. And on Monday, the Fort Walton Beach baseball and softball teams donated their gates to their opponent, Donelson Christian Academy, which had its campus ravaged by a tornado on March 3.
Sports are supposed to bring us together in crises just like these, just like the one we face today.
But that won’t happen this time. That can’t happen. It’s not safe.
So, what now?