Tusk to Tail: No roar of the crowds to dull the virus news
“The first thing I do every morning is read the sports page. I read it before I do the front page because at least on the sports page you have a 50-50 chance of being right.”
– Gerald R. Ford
“I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”
– Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren
Organized sports screeched to a standstill last week, killed by a little germ with a long name. The word you’ve heard more than any other this year, coronavirus, or COVID-19 as we non-medical professionals interchangeably call it, toppled the tallest pillars of professional sports and sent shockwaves through collegiate, high school, and even recreational athletic associations.
Pick a league or sport, and it was probably affected, if not infected by the pandemic. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert testing positive for the virus while he was on the floor to start a game began the day sports stood still. Within 24 hours, the NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, and PGA had each suspended their season or postponed events. The NFL, who doesn’t play until the fall, have no plans to move the start of their league year. The XFL, however, was not so lucky. The upstart pro football league prematurely ended their season with hopes of returning next spring.
Essentially all amateur sports, most notably the NCAA, abruptly canceled competition, training, and recruiting for the rest of the semester. As most college campuses turn exclusively to interactive online instruction, some schools have gone so far as to close their dormitories. You don’t have to go home, student athletes, but you can’t stay here.
For context, there are only two days in a typical year when none of the professional sports leagues or college programs play a single game – the day before and after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. That’s the middle of the summer, when the average fan may be preoccupied with backyard barbecues or beach vacations. Even those two days are not completely devoid of sports.The Home Run Derby and ESPY awards, presented as the Oscars of sports by ESPN, serve as sports methadone for the diehard junkie until games resume the following evening.
We have now begun a three week dead period before competitive sports even considers a return, with no chance of college programs practicing or playing before next year. There will be no March Madness this year. No filling out brackets for the office pool and no wall to wall hoops coverage spread over many channels for many days. No Cinderella story, no rooting against Duke, no letting your kid stay up past bedtime on a school night to watch the championship. There will be no one shining moment.
We will never know how deep of a postseason run Coach Eric Musselman’s first squad of Hoops Hogs was capable of achieving. As it stands now, the Razorbacks won the last game of the SEC tournament, which may have been the final complete college basketball game of the year. The winner of such is typically awarded a championship, so congratulations, Coach Muss.
Meanwhile, Arkansas baseball had practically sold out the entire season, but more than a few fans seemed to be waiting for warmer weather. Following a five game skid beginning in Houston, the Diamond Hogs salvaged the series against South Alabama and swept Grand Canyon, the giant killer, in what became the season finale.
It had been presumed that Coach Dave Van Horn would push all the right buttons to secure a third consecutive trip to Omaha for the College World Series. But there will not be any College World Series, or even a potential regional or super regional series to host. Those fans waiting to go to the ballpark may have missed their last opportunity to see Heston Kjerstad, Casey Martin, and Casey Opitz in a Razorbacks uniform.
Even the programs with attendance that naturally promotes social distancing will have to forego the opportunity to compete for championships and individual awards or honors. COVID-19 may cost the Razorbacks another half dozen track titles alone. Look around The Hill. From softball to tennis, golf to gymnastics, any one or all of them could have been playing a once-in-a-lifetime special season. Mike Neighbors’ Ladybacks were primed for an NCAA tournament bid on Selection Sunday. Now? Thanks for playing. I’m sure there will be a celebration once everyone is out of quarantine.
The NCAA announced that the spring sport student athletes will at least be given another year of eligibility to replace their lost season. Kjerstad doesn’t need it. My man was hitting .448 and 6 home runs with 40 more games and the postseason left to play. It’s fruitless to play what-if, but the Junior outfielder was certainly on pace for some prestigious postseason awards at a minimum.
Upperclassmen like basketball forward Jeantal Cylla may face a more difficult conundrum. The senior struggled to find consistent playing time under Coach Muss, and now there is a highly regarded recruiting class coming to campus. Players in that situation entering the transfer portal could seriously alter the college sports landscape.
Sports will never be the same as long as one key ingredient – a cheering crowd – is prey to pandemic. Oaklawn racing and The Masters Tournament, two stalwart institutions operated by separate cadres of crazy rich caucasians, generally write their own rules. If anyone would declare that the proverbial show must go on, it was assumed it would be one of them.
This year, a “tradition unlike any other” has been postponed, and Oaklawn closed the doors to the race track. Of course, the newly approved and disinfected casino was still running business as usual. Horses and jockeys clearly tested negative for the virus, as they are allowed to race, just as patrons are encouraged to use the mobile app to wager on said races. If this pandemic taught Tusk to Tail anything, it’s that you should no longer drink and gamble in large crowds. You can gamble and drink just about anywhere, even all by yourself at home.
These next few weeks without sports is going to be interesting, just like it was interesting when Jack Nicholson was isolated in the Overlook Hotel with his family in The Shining. Through wars and terrorist attacks, we have always had sports to fall back on. Even when our team breaks our heart, a fairly common occurrence for Hog fans, we know we’ll get ‘em next time. We have lost all of that until the pandemic is contained.
This story started with similar quotes from a US President and Supreme Court Justice. They remind us that without a sports page, there’s just more news. In the midst of the Coronapocalypse, plunging financial markets, and an election that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the future, that is not necessarily a good thing.
Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.