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The Day Sports Stood Still Attempts to Fathom Our COVID Year

HBO documents the sports world's response to COVID and the racial justice movement of 2020.
  • Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul appears in and executive produces HBO's The Day Sports Stood Still. (Photo courtesy HBO)
    Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul appears in and executive produces HBO's The Day Sports Stood Still. (Photo courtesy HBO)

    In a very real way, sports was one of the American public's earliest yardsticks for measuring the severity of COVID-19. Just a year past its anniversary, we've all commemorated March 11, 2020, as the date when, for lack of a better term (or, honestly, not), shit got real. The WHO declared a pandemic, Tom Hanks Instagrammed that he and Rita Wilson had COVID, and — for added surreality — Sarah Palin performed “Baby Got Back” on The Masked Singer. But the thing that seemed to resonate with the most people was the NBA canceling games, followed not long after by the NCAA canceling that year's March Madness. To watch a billion-dollar industry close up shop really landed the notion that we were in a very serious public health crisis.

    HBO's The Day Sports Stood Still, from director Antoine Fuqua and executive producer Chris Paul, documents the surreality of that day and the many days that followed, with sports first stopping entirely and then staggering back onto its feet in a kind of waking dreamlife, carrying on in bubbles and empty arenas, a ghostly twin to what sports are ideally supposed to be. Fuqua, whose impressive feature filmography includes films like Training Day and The Magnificent Seven, kicks the film off with athletes like Paul, Mookie Betts, and Natasha Cloud rhapsodizing about the interplay of athlete and fan in the sporting realm and how much is lost when the crowds are absent. Then we transition into that surreal March 11, when the NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder (Paul's team) and the Utah Jazz was cancelled moments before tip-off because Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID.

    Fuqua guides the viewer through those scary and uncertain first months of the pandemic from a sports-eye view, as leagues and sporting organizations from the NHL, to Major League Soccer, to Wimbledon tennis, to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo began postponing events. The uncertainty amongathletes gives way to the new normal of life at home, stocking up on supplies, training in backyards and kitchens. The personal stories run from the sweet (Chris Paul telling his kid that he tested negative) to the almost unbearably tragic, as NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns describes losing his mother to the disease.

    Whether you're looking to re-enter the headspace of spring 2020 is up to you, but Fuqua is unflinching in his look back, something which serves the film well as it takes on the other undeniable story of 2020: the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the protests and demands for racial justice that followed. The NBA's Herculean efforts to reconstitute the NBA season in a bubble in Orlando had already contributed to a sense of hunkering down among the players, and the solidarity at play contributed to a courageous series of actions by the athletes to take the racial-justice conversation in the country into their own hands.

    Through the players' perspectives, their decision to demand concessions from the teams and the league before they'd resume the season in the bubble, and eventually, in reaction to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, to stop playing in the middle of the playoffs as an act of defiance, plays not just as one other unprecedented thing that happened in an unprecedented year, but as the natural decision to be made in a year when our collective humanity was repeatedly put to the test.

    The Day Sports Stood Still attempts to end on a note of hopefulness, with the fans gradually beginning to return to sports at the end of 2020, and the new NBA season stepping outside the bubble for 2020-21. It's not quite as convincing a statement of triumph with the world still very much within the pandemic space, but as a document of the sports world reacting to the outside world, in all its chaos and horror, it's incredibly compelling.

    The Day Sports Stood Still premieres on HBO Wedesday March 24 at 9:00 PM ET,

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Day Sports Stood Still, HBO, Antoine Fuqua