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Sports always has been our escape from problems, but now it has a big problem

An empty Madison Square Garden before the start

An empty Madison Square Garden before the start of the Big East Basketball Tournament Thursday.   Credit: Getty Images/Sarah Stier

The plot twist of this scary movie is a bit of a cliché, but it’s an effective one: The central characters believe they have discovered an escape route, only to find a monster headed for them from the opposite direction.

So it has come to pass with sports late in the winter of 2020, with a global health crisis unfolding and one of the globe’s traditional forms of “escapism” morphing into one of the very things we need to escape from.

That is what is so disorienting about the ongoing cascade of suspensions and cancellations because of the coronavirus pandemic, which in less than 24 hours took out the NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, every major conference basketball tournament and then, in the biggest shock of all, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

We have been told for many decades that sports offer a valuable distraction from real life, perhaps most notably when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the green light to baseball to carry on during World War II.

Sports also has been lauded for healing powers after traumatic events. See Sept. 21, 2001, and a certain game-winning home run by the Mets’ Mike Piazza against the Braves at Shea Stadium.

We also are used to sports taking a back seat to bigger matters, such as when World War I led to the shortening of the 1918 baseball season, an earthquake interrupted the 1989 World Series and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, temporarily brought all games to a halt.

This is different. The problem this time is sports itself, from the way it brings large groups of people together, to the intimate quarters shared by participants, to logistics that force people to move far and wide around the country.

Some of the best things about sports for the moment are some of the worst things about sports.  Hence the increasingly drastic and disruptive actions that have been a wakeup call for many who a few days ago might have been downplaying the dangers of COVID-19.

For the most part, executives, coaches and players have done and said the right things, as have most fans. This is no time to be whining about playoff implications.

But still, we sports fans are allowed at least to think such thoughts during the time we are saving from commuting to the office.

One of the differences between sports fans and rational people is how much we care about the minutiae of our world, and this sort of shock to the system is profoundly weird.

In an uncertain world, one of the things fans like most is the orderly predictability of schedules and standings. Most news is gray. Most sports news is black and white. One team wins, the other loses, and eventually someone gets a trophy.

Can there really be a season without an NBA or NHL or MLB or NCAA champion?

True, that has happened before in hockey and baseball because of labor disputes, and Earth continued spinning on its axis, but there never has been a disruption quite this widespread, and quite this sudden, and quite this open-ended.

As humans and citizens, most of us understand there are more important things than whether the Islanders and Rangers can sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs, or how Hofstra would have fared in March Madness after a 19-year wait.

But as fans, it is OK to feel dizzy right now.

The sports world usually makes more sense than the world around it. Now it’s been thrown into the middle of a sense-bending time.

So let’s agree on two things here, then get on with the business of taking care of ourselves and others:

1. It is normal to feel stunned and bummed about the impact of current events on sports events.

2. It is not the most important thing to be feeling right now.

New York Sports