Covid-19, Like Other Real-World Events, Has Changed Sports

Baseball, football and college sports have been transformed by what's in the headlines.
By Matt Spolar

The NBA is looking to resume play as LeBron James and others emerge from Covid-19 quarantine. In order to allow players proper rest after this extended season, some say these lost months due to the pandemic could force a radical schedule change moving forward — turning the NBA into largely a summer sport from now on. Here are other times that events in the real world altered American sports:

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Baseball spread across the South after Confederate troops saw their Union prisoners playing it. (Library of Congress)

1. The Rise of Baseball

Prior to the Civil War, baseball was not widely known outside the North. When Confederate troops saw their Union prisoners playing it, they became intrigued. Soon, “New York baseball” was being played by regiments across the South as a form of exercise and diversion, and America’s pastime was born.

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The Rockford Peaches played from 1943 through 1954 in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. (Library of Congress)

2. Women Take the Field

World War II drained Major League Baseball teams of men. The Chicago Cubs’ owner, Phil Wrigley, began the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, depicted in the movie “A League of Their Own.” With crowds drawn by teams like the Rockford Peaches, above, attendance in fact peaked after the war, and women’s sports grew.

3. Football Expands

The National Football League was also weakened by World War II, and a competing league called the All-America Football Conference was launched. The league quickly folded, but it spawned the San Francisco 49ers and Paul Brown’s Cleveland team, whose innovations, like watching game film, modernized the NFL.

4. College Sports Are Transformed

While pro sports often anticipated shifts in race relations, it took school desegregation and the passage of 1960s civil rights laws to forever change the college sports landscape. Black players were eventually recruited to previously all-white Southern universities, where their achievements reshaped major collegiate athletics.

5. Drug Problems, and a Solution

During the 1980s, cocaine’s rise in America did not spare professional sports. Amid a string of high-profile incidents, like the death of top NBA draft pick Len Bias, leagues instituted drug testing, which later expanded to include testing for steroids.

6. The NBA’s Future

The director of the NBA players union says teams “really want to play” the rest of this season now, raising questions about when the next season would start. James joked that one thing may never come back: “I ain’t high-fiving nobody for the rest of my life.”

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