New norms: What it’s like covering sports during a pandemic

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As I ascended the Haas Pavilion bleachers on Feb. 13, I couldn’t help but feel consumed by the gravity of the moment. Just over 11 months prior, residents of Alameda County entered lockdown and UC Berkeley suspended in-person classes, prompting me to go back to my home in Southern California. And yet there I was — about to cover a Cal men’s basketball game.

COVID-19’s impact on sports worldwide cannot be overstated, but its effect on student-journalists has been understated. Not only is the experience of attending and covering games drastically different, but the feelings surrounding the opportunity to do so have never been so fluid.

That familiar rush on game day was still there as I pulled out my favorite button-down shirt and laced up my shoes before heading to the stadium. With my credentials processed, a symptom screener filled out and a bottle of hand sanitizer packed away, I was ready to see the blue and gold rumble with now-No. 23 Colorado. But something still felt off — and it wasn’t my mask.

Amid a pandemic, should sports even be played? With so many suffering across the nation, it’s hard not to wonder if covering a college basketball game is really of utmost importance. When other students are sheltering in place and not allowed to attend games, is it fair that I get to? What is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience and a privilege can be quickly overshadowed by feelings of guilt and melancholy.

As I approached my designated socially-distanced table above center court, I tried to tune out these thoughts and emanate professionalism. Of course, sitting in a silent arena and overlooking an empty student section made that task easier said than done. The journalist part of me was excited to cover a clash between Pac-12 rivals, but the student part of me felt for my fellow Bears.

The game happened, but it simply wasn’t what it was supposed to be: screaming fans had been replaced by lifeless cardboard cutouts, while the absence of deafening chants of “Go Bears!” was filled by the squeaks of sneakers and chatter between players. When guard Matt Bradley dropped a career-high 29 points to help the blue and gold pull off the biggest upset win of its season, nobody cheered. The fan “buzz” was gone, replaced by the anxious mouse clicks of reporters logging into post-game Zoom interviews.

As a first-time Cal men’s basketball reporter this season, I couldn’t help but feel as though an experience I had always dreamed of was being robbed from me. Almost everything was different from the way it would have been in a pre-pandemic world. Yet it feels wrong to complain when I know others are dealing with more consequential issues; I was fortunate just to be there, given the circumstances.

This paradox of COVID-19 has been encountered by everyone. Teams are performing on modified schedules and playing in different stadiums in an effort to follow safety protocols and reduce the spread of the virus. Players are returning despite not having full offseasons. Games are postponed and canceled on short notice, and media coverage is riddled with rules and regulations.

All levels require extensive planning for worst-case scenarios, which have unfortunately become far too real. The focus has shifted from the game at hand to everything that could possibly go wrong logistically. In essence, the previously unscripted sporting experience has begun to feel scripted.

So, as I descended the Haas Pavilion bleachers to leave, I took one last look at the empty stadium and it dawned on me: my role as student-journalist is magnified in times like these. The experience of covering sports may feel different during a pandemic, but as student-journalists, it is our job to adapt – if nothing else, we owe it to the students who can’t be there.

Kabir Rao is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.