On Friday, when ESPN was humming along in Headline News mode, Scott Van Pelt called in to Get Up. “I’m lost,” said Van Pelt. “For better or for worse, my life has been defined by sports. … They’ve framed my existence.”
Van Pelt made sure to mention that the most important thing about the coronavirus was the health of the populace. But he came back to his feeling of professional anxiety. “As far as the lack of sports go, I don’t have a clue what it is I’m meant to do,” he said. “And it’s a really odd, odd feeling.”
As coronavirus cases pop up across America, I suspect Van Pelt’s feeling is universal among sports media types. I feel it, anyway. Every external crisis reveals that the sports beat stands at a distance of 6 to 8 feet from the rest of journalism. Plus, we don’t have games to cover. Sports media types are right to ask: What do we do now?
The idea that sports is journalism’s “toy department” is, of course, an old slur. What people forget is the slur was circulated by a sportswriter who saw the beat sneered at by other journalists, fellow sportswriters, and even sports-mad readers. Last week, I wrote a story about reporters losing locker room access. The overwhelming sentiment from readers was that the ban is fine because sportswriting is already worthless.
If readers forget to remind us, “real” journalists do the honors. I sometimes think of a New Yorker story that ran a few months after September 11. To accommodate a flood of news, The New York Times printed its sports page upside down for a while. Executing a perfect think piece cartwheel, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg argued “news about sports is not really news at all—not, at any rate, in the sense that news about politics, economic and social developments, and international affairs is news.” Talk about rubbing it in.
During the coronavirus pandemic, a funny thing has happened on the sports beat. Those non-newsmen and women have shined when summoned to the adult table. On Wednesday night, during the waning minutes of the NBA season, Van Pelt himself was excellent when toggling between Doris Burke, Ryan Ruocco, and Royce Young. Van Pelt turned a gamecast into a newscast. Burke stumped for paid leave for hourly workers at arenas and wondered why the NBA was insisting on playing the Pelicans-Kings nightcap. (It was ultimately called off.)
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Friday’s edition of First Take was full of sober voices asking the right questions. Writers have investigated how the Utah Jazz and people connected to them got ahold of 58 scarce coronavirus testing kits after Rudy Gobert tested positive. The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss called the NBA’s early measures to contain the virus “incremental, tangential, and, in the end, irresponsible.”
There were viral truth-tellers you didn’t see coming. On Friday, radio host Jim Rome welcomed an epidemiologist into the Jungle. Toward the end of his interview, Rome gently subtweeted the moron portion of his fan base: “If somebody listening right now is saying, ‘Look, I’m healthy. If I get the coronavirus, I will be fine. I’m not worried. Everybody is freaking out over nothing’—what would your response be to that person?” Rack ’em!
What sports media types were doing was adapting the same way they did after September 11, during the 2016 election, and amid the immigrant crisis at the border. Two things make their coronavirus stories unique. One, this is the first crisis I can remember in which sports media members themselves are an affected class. At least four writers who covered Wednesday’s fateful Jazz-Thunder game went into self-quarantine, as did Charles Barkley, who called in to Thursday’s edition of Inside the NBA.
The coronavirus also got sports across America canceled. The sportswriter playbook of covering external events used to be this: Write a few stories. Maybe work in a thumb-sucker. (Will we ever watch games the same way again?) Then return to normal programming.
For the moment, there is no normal programming. On Saturday, Keith Olbermann warned that games might not return until September or even later. Wait till you’ve put out three months’ worth of historic what-ifs and revisits of classic teams.
But wait. There’s a reason for sports media members to feel even worse. We’ve spent the past several years hearing that our work may no longer be financially sustainable. Imagine what that fragile professional state will feel like without power rankings.
Last week, as leagues canceled or suspended games, it was fashionable to search for “something positive” about the experience. My training as a sportswriter prevents me from searching for something positive. But if I had to come up with something less dire, I’d say this: When a pandemic is crossing the globe, it’s normal for a sports media person to feel discombobulated, sidelined, almost useless, even as she or he snaps into action. Such self-awareness is useful. I worry about anybody who doesn’t feel at least slightly self-conscious about covering sports for a living.
My mind drifts to a period months from now, when the games are back and the sports content machine is up and running again. In that happy time, “What do we do now?” will still be a valid question.