Holliday: Sports Journalism Just as Important When The Cheering Stops

Former WRAL-TV Sports Anchor and frequent WRALSportsFan contributor Bob Holliday penned this piece about reporting on sports when sports are not happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Bob Holliday

Bob Holliday

It’s a rare event that brings the sports world to a complete pause. Not even the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terror group Black September at the Munich Olympics could stop Avery Brundage’s games for more than 34 hours, though of course it should have. As I look back on my years as a sports reporter and even as a young sports fan, I can cite only a few instances where the rhythmic and continual schedule of athletic events came to some kind of halt.

1963 Assassination of President Kennedy: The tragic events took place on a Friday. While the nation mourned, college and professional football schedules were pushed back one week.

1980 Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: President Carter, in response to the Soviet Union’s military incursion, decided the USA would boycott the Moscow Olympics. Other American sports took place as usual; but for many athletes who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, like UNC swimmer Sue Walsh, there would be no second chance.

1991 Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm marked the first full-scale American military effort in three decades. Out of respect, many college basketball games scheduled on the day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including the UNC-NC State game, were postponed.

2001 9/11 Attacks: Four airline attacks on U.S. targets in New York and Washington, coordinated by the terror group al-Qaeda, killed nearly 3,000 Americans. The attacks took place on a Tuesday. By Friday, it was, as NBC Today show host Bryant Gumbel aptly put it, “still too soon” to play games. Both NCAA institutions and the NFL pushed back their schedules by one week.

Hurricanes: Several major storms have impacted sporting events in North Carolina: Hurricane Fran in 1996, Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and Hurricane Florence in 2019. Games were played during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, though those decisions proved to be controversial. Hurricanes are typically regional events, not affecting sports in most areas of the country. But for those whose homes and communities suffer damage, the impact can be quite long lasting, as we in North Carolina know all too well.

I can’t reflect on any of these difficult times without thinking about how my colleagues in the sports media and I spent our time when the cheering for athletes abruptly stopped. I remember being out in the community a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center when a viewer suggested to me that we sports people must not have anything to do since no games were being played. I bristled. Sports journalists specialize in sports but we are journalists first. I told the viewer that I had covered a church vigil for the 9/11 victims and done a story gauging reaction to the attacks among some international students at NC State. I would do several more non-sports stories before the games resumed.

At WRAL, there is a tradition, dating back to Fran, of using sports reporters to cover the much larger story of hurricane damage. I have talked with people whose homes have been bisected by a toppled pine and shot standups alongside uprooted oaks whose tall tentacles towered over my 6’3 frame. I’ll never forget telling the story of the Bunn Wildcats, unable to play or even practice football, helping clear fallen trees in that Franklin County community.

I mention these few examples, because in the coming weeks and months, the sports media will be challenged in ways we have not seen before, putting aside traditional reporting about athletes and games, to take part in the more significant journalistic enterprise – the pervasive pandemic of COVID-19, and how this particular coronavirus is affecting each and every life.

Sports people will still tell some traditional stories to be sure. I can envision features about senior athletes, whose dreams of one final moment of collegiate glory and exposure to the professional ranks were abruptly but necessarily smashed by the cascade of canceled events and even canceled seasons over the past weeks. Joe Giglio wrote a fine column about C.J. Bryce’s reaction to the sudden end to his senior season.

Yet I suspect stories like these will represent just a portion of the work by sports people. There is so much about the pandemic we still don’t know. We have truly never seen anything remotely like this, and the events I have chronicled above will, in all probability, ultimately pale in comparison with COVID-19 in terms of the duration of impact on virtually every sport in America.

Where do we go from here?

Every day just gets a little shorter don’t you think

Take a look around you, and you’ll see just what I mean

People got to come together, not just out of fear

Where do we go

Where do we go

Where do we go from here?

— Peter Cetera 1969

To me this song from the rock group Chicago poses the right question. Though written 50 years ago after the divisive Democratic National Convention of 1968, it resonates today on a very different issue. To me, the words challenge us as a society to come together – not literally of course – but to act as individuals in lockstep with one another to do what’s necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Apart from our elected leaders, key government administrators, and of course the medical community, no institution has a greater role in these times than the Fourth Estate. The work for reporters in the days ahead will require long hours and out-of-the-box thinking as the media endeavor to bring us the critical stories while trying not to put individuals in harm’s way. Journalism during a time of social distancing? There is nothing anyone learned back in J School to prepare for this. And yet I feel sure our media, at both the local and national level, will successfully navigate these troubled waters.

Again, this pandemic exceeds all other events in our lifetime in terms of creating “a new normal” for many weeks and months, instead of just one week or two. But this crisis, like the others I wrote about earlier, serves to put sports in perspective. The games, as well as the people that play and coach the games, are very important. They bring us joy, emotional release. I can’t imagine a life without sports. At the same time we must recognize that sports are a diversion – the late Howard Cosell once described sports as “the toy department of life.” The spring of 2020 is one of those rare times where sports will be on hold for awhile.

For now, we do still see some traditional sports reporting. NFL off-season maneuvering, such as the Panthers’ contretemps with Cam Newton, seems tailor-made for an otherwise quiet sports environment. Media continue to monitor the spread of the virus to athletes; four members of the Brooklyn Nets – teammates of former UNC star Theo Pinson – have tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL has its first case, even as Carolina Hurricanes play-by-play announcer John Forslund has finished his self-quarantine.

We’re seeing the lighter side of sports, too, as some conduct computer simulations of the canceled ACC and NCAA tournaments; a little virtual reality can help in times like these. I hope at some point we’ll see stories about players continuing to work out, inspiring us all as they try to keep alive their dreams of ultimate success in the athletic arena.

Sports have shaped our past. They remain in our future. But the here and now is about coping with this coronavirus.

Experts caution things could get worse before they get better. Medical reporter Laura Garrett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the 1996 Ebola Crisis in Zaire, said in an interview, “Everything in the United States is going to go very fast now. We’re going to wake up every day to a different nation. This will go on day after day, relentless and exhausting, until June.” Dr. Vivek Murthy, surgeon general in the Obama administration, calls this the worst pandemic to hit America since the Spanish Flu in 1918. I asked my 91-year-old mother if her parents had ever talked about what their lives were like during that time. Apparently, they never did. But the Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans, far more than were lost in World War I, a conflict in which my grandfather fought and survived.

Let us note, however, that the last American pandemic occurred before the Age of Information.

The diversified American media here in 2020 can bring critical information to all, minute by minute and hour by hour, giving amplification to the voices that matter most. And we have a vast network of social media, enabling us to keep tabs on friends and family, even to exchange ideas about how to carry on in these unprecedented circumstances. The social media can bring us together, even when we’re forced to stay apart. So we have the communication infrastructure to weather this, unlike Americans 100 years ago.

But back to those voices that matter most. Dr. Zeke Emanuel, one of the nation’s best known advisors on matters of health policy, says of this pandemic, “It’s not just a few weeks of social distancing and we’re done.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, who as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is a top advisor to President Trump, said recently, “Americans are going to need to hunker down significantly more to stop the spread of the virus.” He has also said it may be weeks before we know “if what we’re doing is having an effect.” Dr. Murthy notes that the Spanish Flu receded during the warm months but came back in the fall. Dr. Emanuel believes COVID-19 could come back in the fall “unless we get a vaccine.”

Indeed the American medical community is now working round the clock to combat the virus, making more tests available, delivering more ventilators, masks and other needed equipment to hospitals, while concurrently working on a long term solution to COVID-19. This and much more is being done as doctors try to identify and treat those who are sick. Things are changing so quickly, and there are so many new developments each day, that sports reporters may be needed to help tell some of these stories.

But who could blame sports people if we fixate just a little bit about the coming football season – while continuing to report on what matters most and practicing healthy personal habits of course. I hope and pray there will be a football season; not so much for the games themselves, but for what every kickoff and touchdown pass would symbolize: That we as a nation had turned back this pandemic without parallel; that finally the cheering could resume.

Thanks to WRAL Contributor Bob Holliday for this capcom story.

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