NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The sports landscape in 2020 reflected the issues in the larger society. Athletes from NASCAR to the NBA and from Major League Soccer to the NFL took a stand for social justice. But everyone's biggest opponent this year was the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 11th college basketball championship week was in full swing and the NBA and NHL were hitting the stretch run of their seasons when March Madness took on a whole new meaning.
In Oklahoma City, the game between the Jazz and Thunder was abruptly postponed moments before tip-off after a positive Coronavirus test from Utah All-Star Rudy Gobert. Less than an hour later the NBA announced it was suspending its season, and the dominoes started to fall.
The NHL and MLS pressed pause the following day. College basketball initially chose to play on in their conference tournaments with limited or no attendance, but quickly shut down altogether once the nationwide picture became more clear. At the SEC Tournament in Nashville, the call came with Tennessee and Alabama warming up for their game.
“I have not had a situation as difficult and emotional as this one, to make a recommendation to our chancellors and president’s that we cancel the remainder of our men’s basketball tournament,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said at the time.
Just a few hours later the NCAA Tournament was canceled, and all college sports for the rest of the school year were shut down. The announcement brought home the severity of the pandemic.
As cases rose and the nation shut down, arenas and stadiums sat empty. Spring passed without a Final Four crowing a national champion. We didn’t get to see the azaleas in bloom at The Masters or the run for the roses in the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.
But eventually sports returned. On May 17th, after more than two months of nothing, Kevin Harvick won NASCAR's first race back at an empty Darlington Raceway.
“It’s dead silent here. We miss the fans,” Harvick said after the race.
Golf came back with great success in June. But the MLS Is Back Tournament in July showed that there was no guarantee seasons would be able to finish. Nashville S.C. and F.C. Dallas were both forced to withdraw due to COVID-19 outbreaks, delaying each club’s return to play by more than a month.
Nashville did return to pick up its first ever win against Dallas on August 12th. The club went on to have one of the most successful expansion seasons in MLS history, making it all the way to the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing to eventually champion Columbus.
The NBA and NHL finished their seasons in bubbles. Basketball called Walt Disney World in Florida home as Lebron James led the Lakers to their 17th world title. Hockey used secure sites in both Toronto and Edmonton, where the Lightning defeated the Stars in six games.
Baseball condensed its year to a 60-game sprint followed by an expanded 16-team playoff. MLB used neutral sites to reduce travel and exposure, but there was still controversy when the Dodgers celebrated their World Series title with Justin Turner after he had been pulled from the clinching game when his daily test came back positive.
“My understanding is that he was asked not to go on the field,” FOX baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal said the following day.
College football was debated, altered and delayed. The Big Ten and Pac-12 initially canceled their seasons before putting together conference-only schedules more than a month after other games began . Many leagues, like the SEC, ACC and Big 12 played with fans in the stands while others, like the Big Ten and Pac-12, played only in empty stadiums.
The N-F-L never broke stride during the pandemic. The league held a virtual Draft on time in April, then started the season on time in September. But it wasn’t without difficulty, and once again Tennessee took center stage.
On September 30th the Titans awoke to the news that eight players and staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the immediate shutdown of St. Thomas Sports Park. There would be 16 more positive tests that kept the team’s facility closed for 11 days and and forced not one, but two games to be postponed.
Still, the Titans persevered, and made a triumphant return in a 42-16 beatdown of the previously unbeaten Bills in a rare Tuesday night game on October 13th.
Led by Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill the Titans are having their best season in a dozen years. They sit at 10-4 with a chance to win the AFC South title over the final two weeks of the season. Through plenty of doubt and some criticism, the NFL has completed every game on its schedule.
“Obviously, our objective is to finish 256 games safely,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in November during a game between the Steelers and Ravens that was forced to be postponed due to more than 20 positive tests within the Baltimore organization.
There have been postponements and cancelations in football and other sports due to COVID-19. But the games go on. At a time when the world desperately needed a distraction, sports, as it so often does, brought light in the darkness.
From high schools to the pros, games were conducted safely. Competition raged on. Traditions continued.. And slowly, but surely, fans -- and the joy that comes with them -- returned. A glimmer of hope that we are headed for a more normal time soon.