IMHO: Assessing our season of silence

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 4/3/2021 7:25:54 AM
Modified: 4/3/2021 7:25:53 AM

I will remember the silence most of all. Visiting high school basketball gyms and hockey rinks in this winter of COVID-19 has been unlike anything I’ve experienced in nearly 35 years of Upper Valley media work. The sound of a raucous crowd, the loud music, the screeching shoes, slicing skates and bleating whistles were replaced by a relative quiet, the sporting arena reduced to a library missing only the person with a finger pressed to lips, requesting peace.

And yet sport survived, and thrived. While our area was short on indoor sports championships — Lebanon High boys basketball being the lone exception — the usual and the unexpected made title runs as our schools inevitably seem to do.

Many of us showed our better selves. Some of us did not.

I will remember the gratitude. Nearly to a person, coaches expressed the simplest of emotions: thanks that their teams got to play games at all. Athletes often spoke in similar terms, framing their post-competition reactions as much in terms of how to improve as how to appreciate the moment.

I will remember the sportsmanship. On the first night of Campion Rink action with an out-of-town opponent, there was the Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal boys hockey team at one blue line at game’s end, visiting Berlin-Gorham at the other, raising their sticks and thanking each other for the chance to play.

They would collide four more times in the next six weeks, the product of regional scheduling to limit travel and possible virus transmission. In hockey, so many encounters in so short a time span can be a recipe for overly rough play. Instead, the Raiders and Mountaineers competed in hard, fair contests in which little or no enmity lifted its head.

As in autumn, post-competition handshakes were replaced by socially distanced waves and thank-yous, wishing the opposite sideline health, safety and future success. On ice and hardwood, players helped each other up, patted each other on the back. Coaches rarely, if ever, jawed at referees.

The silence, overwhelmed by sideline noise in normal times, made the coach’s huddle available to all with adequate hearing. (Even me, and I think I’m going deaf.) What is ordinarily a private moment became public; I occasionally felt I was eavesdropping. I liked it.

I will remember Lydia Eastman’s voice. Midway through a VPA Division IV girls basketball quarterfinal last month, Eastman — a Sharon Academy senior playing for Mid Vermont Christian — came out to guard a Twin Valley foe, loudly shouting, “Ball! Ball! Ball!” It’s a common defensive tactic. It left the effect of a smoke alarm rattling through a near-empty theater.

I will remember the effort. I envy no one having to compete in a facemask; it’s hard enough with two old lungs, let alone a pair that are young and functioning well. I’ve yet to hear my first complaint about masked athletics. Perhaps that’s a fallback to gratitude, just having something for which to compete in the first place.

I will also remember the lesser moments.

The Vermont Principals Association’s rules allowing players with verified medical issues to compete maskless left schools and athletes in a quandary. It was never an issue outdoors, but once inside gyms and rinks some schools took forfeits when they could have showed compassion for affected opponents. The VPA eventually erased those losses from the record.

I don’t fault people for being cautious on behalf of their own kids, but what about the athletes whose teams lost game opportunities for following the VPA’s strictures? No teenager should have to choose between their teammates and their own health. This should have been resolved before winter arrived, not as it progressed.

A small handful of school districts initially decided that banning everyone — including the media — from attending indoor winter sports events was a reasonable response to the pandemic. This nation has become too comfortable giving up rights in exchange for peace of mind, and a media ban, to me, was unacceptable.

They ultimately came around to our perspective about the essential need to have independent eyes and voices on hand to record moments no one else could personally witness. That we even had to fight this shows fleeting awareness of the rules that guide American society and how it can deteriorate when those rules are tossed aside in the interest of expediency.

Fortunately, these moments were in the extreme minority.

I’m looking forward to getting outside again, and it will happen soon. Parents will be able to watch their sons and daughters in person, rather than at the receiving end of an inadequate videostream. We’ll be socially distanced, as we should still be, and we’ll be masked, as we should still be, but we’ll be there to lend our voices to the scene, to bring back a little bit of the noise that was absent in winter.

Silence may be golden. Just not in every instance.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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