Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 7, 2021

The Limits Of Our Games

“We need our sports.” That was the widespread plea back in the early days of the pandemic, a time that now seems so very, very long ago. The notion was that in the midst of isolation, economic deprivation, and profound uncertainty, the familiar distraction of our various games would ease anxiety and bind us together. That idea was always fanciful, born of a conceit that inflated the importance of sports in such harrowing times and underestimated both the persistence and severity of the pandemic.

The extent of the fantasy was made plain when the games gradually returned. Always played in front of none or very few fans, they were accessible only through the medium of television, and ratings were universally down. There were likely many reasons for this, including some technical (fewer cable subscriptions, more streaming) and others logistical (the condensed Major League Soccer season featured matches played in the morning). What was likely not at play was a political reaction. Despite the speed with which some pundits latched onto that possibility since it conveniently aligned with their own views when the NBA, one of the first leagues to return, saw a drop in viewers, as time went on it became clear the decline was common across the sports landscape and not limited to those leagues with politically vocal players. Along with issues like those noted above, one explanation that was inescapable though not much discussed was the likelihood that the notion of sports as a national balm had been farfetched from the beginning.

The clamor to get players back on the field or court skipped right past a crucial question that, like COVID-19, has refused to go away, namely what are the conditions under which playing, or watching, or in the case of On Sports and Life, writing about sports, is simply not a good idea. In the context of the pandemic the query remains very much alive, with teams and leagues starting and stopping play based on widely varying protocols. The malleability of some of those precautionary measures, and the stated determination by so many that the games must go on, are like a finger in the eye to the romantic image of our games’ nobility. There will be a College Football Playoff championship game say its organizers, and a Super Bowl says the NFL, and an on-time start to Spring Training insists the MLB Players Association, and, and, and, because so much money hangs in the balance.

But since the world changed last March, we’ve learned that a rampaging virus is not the only event that can make all our games seem surpassingly trivial, and that financial considerations are not always determinant. It was the athletes themselves who taught us that last summer, when NBA and WNBA players led the way in getting sports to pause and reflect on the profound racial disparity in how citizens are treated by agents of the state, far too often with the worst imaginable consequences. But as significant as the collective actions of those teams were, the members of the Los Angeles Lakers or Seattle Storm could rely on each other for support. At the Western & Southern Open, relocated by the pandemic from Cincinnati to the Gotham tennis complex built around a stadium named for the greatest black male tennis champion in the history of the game, Naomi Osaka brought her sport to a standstill all by herself.

There are many sports stories of note in this first week of the new year. Scarcely a commercial break after the Lakers’ triumph in the NBA’s Disney World bubble, another basketball season is underway. Baseball’s hot stove is finally warming up, with George Steinbrenner reincarnated in the San Diego Padres front office and the new owner of the Mets signing off on a blockbuster trade to either improve his team or distract from stories of a major gender discrimination complaint at his hedge fund. The NFL playoffs are about to kick off, and the NCAA has revealed the plans for its own Super Bowl, the basketball tournament for which March is known. The PGA Tour’s annual event showcasing winners from the previous season has teed off in Hawaii, and LPGA commissioner Michael Whan stunned his tour by announcing he’s stepping down later this year.

But there is also this. On Wednesday, the country set a record for virus-related deaths, even as a more contagious variant of COVID-19 was detected in a growing number of states. That same day a Wisconsin prosecutor announced his decision not to charge the killer of Jacob Blake, while in Washington a mob of domestic terrorists took over the Capitol after being met with a level of police restraint that would be unimaginable had they been black. And, of course, that mob was part of an attempted putsch of the United States government, instigated by the President decisively dismissed in the recent election – an event one might expect to take place in some shithole country, to borrow a phrase.

The sports stories will still be there come Sunday, and On Sports and Life’s thoughts about them will return as usual. But right now, there are other matters we should all be thinking about. However much we need our sports, sometimes life intervenes.

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