Sports, for generations, have impacted society in extraordinary ways. Never has that power been more apparent than over the past 16 months.
For many Americans, when sports shut down in March 2020, the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic became real. The virus changed nearly every facet of our daily lives. The economy collapsed. The mental and emotional toll was substantial. There was a realization after several months in lockdown that COVID would be with us for the foreseeable future—and the question became: How can we as a country establish a new normal and learn to live with this virus?
We went more than 100 days without major professional team sports. It was a void that our nation hadn’t felt for quite some time. Historically, we have turned to sports in difficult and chaotic times to find inspiration, unity and a sense of stability, but in the initial months of the pandemic, our stadiums and arenas remained empty.
As leagues planned their returns after a long hiatus, health and safety was the top priority. Our industry relied on leading medical experts and public health officials to help develop protocols that would ensure a safe and responsible environment to play sports again. Critics understandably questioned the decision to bring sports back amid a raging pandemic. But that view discounted the importance of sports in our culture, particularly the much-needed respite they provide in the face of tragedy and adversity.
The live sports that we enjoyed last summer certainly weren’t what we would all consider “normal.” With limited or no fans in attendance, the captivating atmosphere that makes sporting events so special was missing. Nonetheless, for a few hours each day, people could experience a form of entertainment and community that felt somewhat familiar. Coming back to play took on an even greater meaning as athletes, teams and leagues used this unique moment to bring global attention to important issues of social justice. The return of sports, even in a less than traditional fashion, also demonstrated to broader society that it was possible to balance public health and economic necessity.
It wasn’t until the vaccines ramped up across the country at the start of this year that we could finally start to feel a sense of hope that normalcy was within reach. Today, full arenas and stadiums are signifying that it is safe to socialize again. We have welcomed more than 1 million fans back to our arenas during the NBA playoffs, and it has been gratifying to hear from people—both inside and outside of our industry—who saw capacity crowds as a symbol that perhaps the worst of the pandemic is behind us.
While there is still more work to do and uncertainty ahead, we know that the vaccines will continue to play a critically important role in fighting COVID-19 and its variants. Few industries have as powerful a voice as the sports community, and I believe we can and should use our influence to encourage people to get vaccinated. We cannot underestimate our ability to demonstrate that these vaccines are extraordinarily effective and the key to seeing better days in the near future. We are not quite back to what life was like here before COVID, but if packed sporting events like the NBA Finals in Phoenix and Milwaukee are any indication, we are getting very close.
As I reflect on the events of the past 16 months, there is no doubt that our country had much bigger priorities than sports as we dealt with this pandemic. Every step of the way, though, sports influenced people’s lives. By shutting down, they forced a national conversation about this deadly virus. By coming back, they played a vital role in uplifting society. And above all, they brought people together as they so often do.
Silver has led the NBA since 2014, when he became the league’s fifth commissioner.