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Commentary: Dear college athletes – Here’s what you can do

UPDATED: Tue., March 17, 2020

Gonzaga forward Filip Petrusev  reacts during the WCC championship game with Saint Mary’s on March 10, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Filip Petrusev reacts during the WCC championship game with Saint Mary’s on March 10, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Sally Jenkins Washington Post

Dear Vernon Carey, and Sabrina Ionescu, and Crystal Dangerfield, and Filip Petrusev, and Jordan Nwora, and all the others who will go trophy-less this spring:

The hardest thing in the world for an athlete to do is quit. It’s an unnatural act for you, the scores of who would have begun March Madness this week. Quit. Quitter. Quitting. You’re taught your whole lives to abhor those words, to run through and over them. But in this case, quitting is a lifesaving act, and every one of you out there needs to get your attitude right on that. Those games you won’t play represent people who won’t die.

Sacrifice is the word for it. This strange motionless gesture, this taking the ball and going home, is not the kind of stage-lit heroics you imagined yourselves performing. Nevertheless, it’s a service.

All athletes are ephemeral, short-lived creatures by nature, but none more so than collegians. This may have been your last, or your one and only season. The NBA eventually will resume; golf will be played again at the Masters; and so will pro tennis at Indian Wells. But this particular March Madness is lost, like a song cut off in mid-melody just when the one you wanted to dance with was finally about to say yes.

“These are moments that these kids work for and live for,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Your pain over this is real, and it puts me in mind of a conversation I once had with my late great friend Pat Summitt. Back in 2005 her Tennessee women’s basketball team got upset in the Final Four semifinals, one game shy of the championship, eventually won by Baylor. “Pat, you weren’t going to beat that Baylor team anyway,” I said, like a stupid sportswriter who watches only from the margins. She turned on me with those blaze eyes, her voice spring-loaded with emotion, and snapped, “Well I would like to have tried.”

You would like to have tried, of course. You could have lived with a loss. It’s the not-trying that devastates. The hardest part of all is to do … nothing.

But you have to learn to see beyond your own small drama and urgencies. A much larger drama is overtaking your campuses and hometowns, and at some point, a much larger service is going to be required of you – one that you are uniquely positioned to carry out because of the adulation and loyalty that you can command.

“Right now, people have to stay home and be careful, but the time will come to rebuild parts of the community again, and that’s the time to come out in force,” advised Scott Cowen, who was president of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina, and who now advises others on disaster recovery.

A hurricane is what the COVID-19 virus is most like. It’s like the largest hurricane anyone ever saw, a swamping event like Hurricane Harvey, which decimated Houston in 2017 by pouring 27 trillion gallons of rain on Texas and Louisiana. Only this hurricane is of much broader size, and it reaches out in every direction.

“It’s slow-moving with uncertain duration, and every day it affects something else,” Cowen said.

Remember what J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans did during Harvey? He was holed up and frustrated in a Dallas hotel room after his team had to be rerouted. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he used the down time to start a crowdsourced fundraiser. He set out to raise $200,000. By the time he was done he had raised $41.6 million, helped rebuild around 1,100 homes, repaired 970 child-care centers and after-school programs, distributed millions of meals, and helped more than 100,000 kids.

That’s your power. That’s what you can do.

Your role will be to look around and do your part. Find what you can do. Maybe it will be to fundraise online for a food bank, like Steph Curry and his wife Ayehsa, who are feeding kids who need meals during the shutdown of the Oakland school system. Maybe it will be to raise money for people who’ve lost work, like Zion Williamson and Blake Griffin, who are covering shortfalls for the hourly workers at shutdown arenas.

Or maybe it will just be to use your deftness and reach with social media to hold people together, in your universities or towns, while everything is so dispersed and everyone is so dispirited, through regular online forums and chats and town halls. At least 200 universities and colleges have shut down temporarily. Understand this: The NCAA Tournament will not be the only casualty. Schools will be in deep economic trouble from the fiscal impact of the virus, and the result could include layoffs on campus or closed academic departments – or worse.

“Some of them who have been on the cusp financially, this could do them in, honestly,” said Cowen, who had to close Newcomb College for women and cut three engineering programs and eight sports in order for Tulane to survive after Katrina.

Maybe your role will be to foster or teach teamwork, with your deeply ingrained knowledge of it, and help folks look for creative team solutions. For instance, Cowen got well-funded universities to take in students for a semester and hand back the tuition to Tulane, so it could have operating cash to get through its crunch.

Think imaginatively. Service likely will become an inevitable part of your life. It perhaps should even become a requirement for a degree, or a place on a roster, going forward, if the worst-case scenario occurs and 21 million Americans get sick. No doubt some of you still don’t think the virus is such a big deal, though you may have gotten an inkling when Nike closed its stores worldwide. As Ariana Grande tweeted in a public service announcement, “The ‘we will be fine because we’re young’ mind-set is putting people who aren’t young and/or healthy in a lot of danger. You sound stupid and privileged and you need to care more about others. Like now.”

But most of you get it and are already embracing the new reality, with your strong shoulders and good minds. During this pause, this strange reset, you have a chance to show the country your true value. Everyone debates whether you should be paid for generating billion-dollar revenue, or whether some of you belong on campus at all because you aspire to be professionals and hit the gym harder than the books. Show them who you really are. Show them what competition has taught you and why it’s such a critical vein of learning. Show them your remarkable can-do-ness in the moment, your ability to handle dual responsibilities and competing pressures, your extraordinary capacity for turning deficits into something beautiful and powerful.

Show them your exquisite energy and ease under stress, your dedication and self-startingness, and your high aspiration. It’s all going to be needed in these low times. Above all, show them what those of us who watch you most closely have always known about you: The physical performance on a stage is the least of you; it’s nothing compared to your gorgeous spirit.

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