That’s the box score only after opening weekend — yet Major League Baseball says it’s not planning on cutting short its already stunted season.
Meanwhile, the entire National Basketball Association has gone to Disney World.
The show must go on, apparently, because we don’t know what we’d do without it. We’re looking to sports for a grand reprise of our regular lives in a very irregular summer.
The illusion starts with a delusion: that it’s really possible to wipe away risk altogether amid a pandemic. Next come the efforts to pretend, at least for nine sweet innings or four quarters, that there’s no pandemic at all. Some MLB broadcasts pulsate with the cheering of fake crowds. No one can really take themselves out to the ballgame these days, so they’re lifting audio from a video game instead and letting teams mimic the sound of full stadiums. The MLB warns against adding boos to the mix, which means it really is all baby sharks and rainbows.
Because hearing fake fans isn’t enough in the 21st century, the league is also leaning on its skills in set design. Citi Field plays host to close to 5,000 cardboard cutouts of Met devotees who’ve purchased their printed likenesses to populate the stands. What could be creepier? Well, Fox’s embrace of so-called virtual fans. These blob-like non-humans bob around on the screen, “reacting” in two-second delayed disappointment when a full count goes the wrong way.
The Orlando basketball bubble is the off-screen extension of this on-screen charade. The strategy of cordoning off pro athletes to limit exposure has been embraced by the men’s hockey and soccer associations, too. But its apotheosis is in the NBA, whose members have taken their talents in the saddest of times to the happiest place on Earth. The MLB clumsily attempts to soothe the couch-bound by broadcasting visions of the before-times, yet when the players leave the field, the sham stops and they’re out in the virus-ridden wild — which has probably helped to spell the season’s doom. The basketball bubble solves this problem by making the entirety of players’ days and nights part of the pageant.
The NBA isn’t at Disney World by accident. Disney World is the perfect place to build a bubble because it already is a bubble: colossal, contained and contrived, so separate from real life that it feels unreal enough for kids to think it’s magic. So the NBA has access to a ready-made mini-city, where players can indulge in golf, fishing and bowling, or dance to DJ sets as they luxuriate in resorts assigned to teams based on seeding — so only championship contenders can experience the spiffy Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs.
Every practice court in the bubble, emblazoned with squad colors and logos, is literally a stage: trucked down from the cities where these teams can’t safely play and assembled for the express purpose of making business look as close to usual as possible. There are barbers and hair-braiders and manicurists and pedicurists. The artificial society has 24-hour concierge services, of course, but it also has the social services necessary to any community, from mental health counseling to chaplains. How else to ensure players can survive for so long away from the outside world, except to create a small world all its own?
This experiment runs on a bit of delusion, too, because some creature comforts to which the stars have become accustomed are undoubtedly missing. Lou Williams, a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, reportedly escaped the bubble with a hall pass to attend a funeral, but he stopped off on the way back at a strip club to, uh, pick up some chicken wings and catfish nuggets. “Ask any of my teammates what’s my favorite restaurant in Atlanta is. Ain’t nobody partying,” he tweeted.
People usually travel to Disney World to dwell within a fantasy, by soaring on a roller coaster through a starry galaxy or hugging a large talking mouse. Nowadays, everyone’s preferred fantasy is the world as it was before the virus hit: totally, utterly normal. When we turn on the television and see the same teams we saw last summer, competing in the same games we watched last summer, in environments that feel like last summer as closely as planners could concoct, a mirage of normality is exactly what we get.
We’re desperate for sports to exist today because they shouldn’t be able to exist at all amid a pandemic — and the fact that they do keeps reality at a distance.
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