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McFarling: As sports world goes dark, normalcy eludes us

McFarling: As sports world goes dark, normalcy eludes us

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GREENSBORO — Black curtains shrouded the upper deck of the Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday, covering the areas where fans were supposed to be.

It was high noon at the ACC Tournament. A slate of four quarterfinal games were supposed to begin shortly. Clemson and Florida State bands played. Cheerleaders gyrated. Two small clusters of family members — one clad in orange, the other in garnet — sat in the lower deck, waiting for their sons and nephews to take the court, basketballs in hand.

That wouldn’t happen.

ACC commissioner John Swofford would later call the coronavirus pandemic th e hardest situation he’s ever faced in his professional life. But there was only one decision conference officials could make at that moment, and they made it.

Tournament canceled. Everybody head home.

“It’s an extraordinary situation,” Swofford said, after crowning Florida State the ACC Tournament champions by virtue of its regular-season title. “None of us that are involved in it have ever seen anything like it and hopefully never will again. Hopefully we’ll all, in this country and worldwide, get beyond what’s a tough issue and a very unpredictable one going forward.”

What’s the word we always use regarding sports in trying times? “Normalcy.” Yes, that’s the word. Playing games brings us a sense of normalcy, provides a much-needed distraction for folks dealing with tragedy, grief or life-altering circumstances.

Scoff at that idea if you will, but I’ve seen the best of it. On April 20, 2007 — four days after the campus shootings at Virginia Tech — a record crowd of 3,132 showed up to watch a baseball game at English Field in the first on-campus athletic event since the tragedy.

Yes, that night was abnormal. Folks still seemed a bit edgy and nervous. But the evening was also wonderful. Unity was palpable that night. People who’d been sitting at home watching the news for days had somewhere they all could be, together. Some small amount of healing could begin.

The problem with trying to use sports in this way with the coronavirus is that there was never going to be any normalcy without people in the stands. Playing in empty gyms is not sports; it’s recreation. And streaming video of recreation to televisions worldwide only reminds people of how serious this situation has gotten.

So I’m not going to pillory the ACC or any other basketball conference for waiting as long as they did to make this decision. Put the monetary aspects of all this aside for a second and consider an undeniable fact: They wanted to play. They wanted to show strength. They wanted to push through it. It’s what sports people do.

Until they can’t.

“There’s so many unknowns out there and aspects of it that we don’t really have control over,” Swofford said. “You do the best you can with the information you have at the time you have it. This is an extremely fluid, changing set of dynamics, and I feel certain that will continue.”

Given that, the NCAA had little choice but to cancel its tournament, too. Almost every sport outside of NASCAR and the PGA Tour has made the decision to go dark. Duke University — like many schools — has suspended all athletic competitions. Think the Blue Devils might have been in the bracket?

The quixotic quest for normalcy continued here just after noon Thursday, when Swofford presented the tournament championship trophy to the Seminoles. The FSU players tried to force a smile as they posed for pictures. The band played that familiar song. Moms and dads did the tomahawk chop.

Then everybody left, emptying the arena, heading back to the uncertainty. The black curtains remained.

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