Alumni in Action: Alumni share insights on COVID-19 impact on the world of professional sports

Mark Russell '74, Josh Norris '11 & Zora Stephenson '15 spoke with President Connie Ledoux Book as part of a video series that highlights alumni working on the front lines of the pandemic.

President Connie Ledoux Book led a conversation on Friday, May 1, that featured Mark Russell ’74, vice president of rules and competition for the PGA Tour; Josh Norris ’11, NFL draft writer for NBC Sports/; and Zora Stephenson ’15, sideline/digital reporter for the Milwaukee Bucks. They spoke about their expertise and perspective regarding their respective sports and discussed what the future could hold for players, staff members, teams and fans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on the sports world, causing sporting events from the 2020 Olympics, which were slated to be held in Tokyo this summer, to little-league soccer to come to a screeching halt. Professional sports leagues across the country and the globe are actively consulting health experts in order to find necessary avenues towards resuming play in the safest manner possible.

The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, whose regular seasons were mere weeks away from completion, have been put on hold, while, in contrast, Major League Baseball continues to search for ways to begin its 2020 season. The NCAA was also forced to cancel the beloved “March Madness” college basketball tournament.

Zora Stephenson ’15, a three-year starter for the Elon University women’s basketball team, serves as the sideline reporter for the Milwaukee Bucks for games on FOX Sports Wisconsin and as a digital reporter for Having started this new position in September 2019, Stephenson became accustomed to traveling to every Bucks game, until everything came to a halt. “I went from 100 to zero in a matter of hours,” she stated. “I haven’t spent this much time at home since I got this job in September.”

Along with the rest of the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks season was cut short near the end of regular-season play. Leading the league with a record of 53-12, the Bucks had a playoff run on the horizon.

The National Football League (NFL) Draft was moved to a virtual format instead of the original plan to hold the festivities in Las Vegas. President Book commented on the virtual nature of the draft, stating that seeing the streamed reactions and moments of celebration amongst the families of the drafted players added something special to the program.

Josh Norris ’11, NFL draft writer for NBC Sports/, shared that not only was the NFL Draft process different for the players, but staff too were able to spend more time with family and loved ones. In the months leading up to the draft, coaches and staff would typically spend 18 hours a day at the office, making the important decisions and research that would shape their team for years to come. “I guarantee things will change in the future for these staff members of NFL teams to be more with their families moving forward and I think that’s only a positive,” Norris speculated. The NFL is currently evaluating what their upcoming season will look like.

The Professional Golfers Association took precautions and pushed back several events, postponing three of its major tournaments to later dates and canceling The Open Championship altogether.

Mark Russell ’74, vice president of rules and competition for the PGA Tour, has been involved in many discussions about getting the sport back up and running. Russell is hoping to be the first sport to return to holding competition, as the PGA is currently scheduled to host the Charles Schwab Challenge at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas the week of June 8.

President Book shifted the conversation toward the fan experience and the impact fans have on any sporting event, sharing that some sporting events have become associated with certain aspects of life. The beginning of spring is different without The Masters or MLB Opening Day. A March without filling out a “March Madness” bracket feels strange. The sports world has come to a halt, leaving a void in the lives of sports fans that they have never experienced before.

“You would never imagine a time that there would be no sports, and it’s for all the right reasons health and safety is obviously number one but… it’s where everyone goes to release and forget about what’s happening. People miss that so much,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson went on to share that this situation has given the NBA the opportunity and responsibility to share content on social media to fill a void and connect the communities that surround these teams. “Fans are waiting for that content, they’re waiting for that connection with the players that they adore so much,” Stephenson added. “No matter what space you’re in, everybody’s going through something right now and I think people find peace in knowing that everybody’s in it together.”

When the games do resume, sporting events without fans in the stands will be a sight many will have to get used to. “Can you have sports without fans?” President Book asked. “Is that possible?”

“We can definitely play the golf tournaments without fans but it would be a huge, huge void because the fans do create an atmosphere and excitement,” Russell shared, stating that players have already been discussing what a tournament would be like without fans to supply energy and excitement.

Stephenson shared her perspective as well, stating that games could be played without fans, but they would look and feel vastly different. “The fans add so much excitement and that would be missing but they’d have to muster it up from somewhere else.”

The world of professional sports brings much more than joy and entertainment to fans, players, coaches and teams. “Sports is woven into the fabric of American life and you don’t realize it until all of a sudden it was gone,” said Russell.

This conversation is part of a limited video series highlighting alumni who are working on the front lines of the pandemic. Previous conversations have featured topics including health care and news reporting. Stay tuned for upcoming conversations and stories about Elon Alumni in Action.