They thought they’d be playing the third weekend of September, 2001 – right up until they didn’t. Virtually everybody from the lowliest high schools to the mighty NFL bowed to overwhelming social pressure and changed course out of respect to a country still in mourning.
They thought they’d be playing in the first half of the 1940s – right up until they didn’t. As World War II ramped up and manpower was diverted to Uncle Sam, scores of colleges dropped football, and several of them never brought it back. By 1943 the SEC was a five-team league, with no Alabama in sight. Names like Iowa Pre-Flight and Great Lakes Naval Training dotted the AP poll, filled with players getting in a brief distraction before being thrown into the all-consuming fight against the Axis.
They thought they’d be playing for the Stanley Cup in Seattle on April 1, 1919 – right up until they didn’t. Hours before the deciding game of the series, it was called off with numerous Montreal Canadiens laid low by a localized outbreak of Spanish flu, part of a multi-year pandemic that killed millions around the globe, including Habs defenseman Joe Hall within a matter of days.
Alabama basketball thought it would be playing in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday – right up until the league cancelled the event a couple of hours before tipoff. That was part of a chain reaction of cancellations across the sports world that ended the college basketball season and practically all spectator sports in America for the foreseeable future.
When this Crimson Tide team is remembered in future years, it will be remembered as a disappointing, injury-plagued team that nevertheless showed some promising sparks and a radically-different playing style under first-year coach Nate Oats. Eventually those details will seem important again. Right now, they very much don’t.
American society and its economy have been fashioned into a just-in-time, perpetual motion machine, and the thought of stopping any small part of it always meets with skepticism and protest. And when the idea of postponing the sports calendar began taking shape sporadically across the land over the past couple of weeks, many thought of it as needless panic. When the NCAA came up with its initial plan Wednesday to bar the general public from its tournament games, it seemed like a dramatic step.
Then Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with the Covid-19 coronavirus just before tipoff and almost instantly the NBA brought its entire league to a halt, even while Gobert and teammates were quarantined inside the arena. Hundreds of miles away, Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg fell noticeably ill during his Big 10 Tournament opener and viewers across the nation shuddered at the potential ramifications as he left early and was taken to an Indianapolis hospital. School officials later said Hoiberg had been treated for the flu and released, but the indelible image only helped crystallize the image of what could go wrong and how quickly things could snowball.
For better or worse, sports often serves as our distraction, but this week sports may very well have led the way in sobering up a nation facing a long fight. Within the last day, the mood has turned serious and the reality ahead has come more into focus. This is something besides fodder for another argument or round of social media memes. This is the equivalent of a 50-state hurricane warning, and it doesn’t matter how far inland you live. Much like a hurricane, this virus does not care if you vote red or blue or even at all. It is coming and the effects will linger for a good, long while and nobody is quite as prepared as they’d like to be, although some are clearly going to be in deep distress in a hurry.
We’re likely going to have to flex some civic muscles we’ve let atrophy lately. There’s a reason why World War II produced so many training films and propaganda posters on topics like avoiding hoarding and stamping out rumors. The human instinct is to gripe and put self above others, and that was just as true of the Greatest Generation as it is now. But it can be done, has been done and must be done again.
It’s popular to talk about the life lessons that sports can teach. We could do worse than adopt the ones that Oats laid out as the cornerstone of his program when he first came to Alabama just under a year ago.
Maximum effort. Continual improvement. Selfless love.