As the novel coronavirus spreads dangerously and invisibly through the world, you should understand now that this indefinite sports hiatus is necessary. It doesn’t make it any less disappointing, however. If you’re healthy and your friends and family are, too, the disruption feels as if you were forced to make an abrupt exit from joy to sit vigil as a mere precaution against something really bad happening.
Is this an emergency? Yes, but not in a customary way. So we’re cool to let our guard down, live a little and check back in, right? Um, sorry. The sports world has gone dark, and it could last for weeks, if not months.
When fast living turns slow and labored, you tend to remember the good times and ponder big ideas such as meaning and purpose. So why sports? Why do we watch? Why do we obsess? Why are we inclined to look for villains amid these postponements and cancellations, even now, when decision-makers are trying to keep us safe?
It is not just about missing the fun, the distraction, the escapism. Most of all, it is the connection. From now until normalcy, that will be the greatest loss.
The hiatus is only a few days old, but I miss the games. I miss watching them, but I miss the conversation, the emotion, the razzing and even the pettiness more than I could have envisioned. No matter how you consume sports, the experience is a social one, which creates an obvious vulnerability to social-distancing measures. But it is deeper than losing the ability to attend events at arenas and stadiums.
The wonderful thing about this connection is it transcends public or private viewing. It unites us in grand and intimate ways. The games connect parents and children and ignite the effort of passing down traditions. They connect strangers and create friendships, and at their best they foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other.
At a time such as this, it is easy to minimize sports. Right now, in our sports discussion, the word “trivial” is used as much as the phrase “out of an abundance of caution.” But the worth of athletics deserves a much more nuanced definition. It is not so important that the games must go on, covid-19 be damned. But in a world in which some level of isolation is vital to slow the spread of this virus, the void is starting to feel palpable, and the longing for sports will only intensify.
We don’t just need the diversion. We need the connection.
In the final week of Barack Obama’s presidency three years ago, he hosted the curse-breaking Chicago Cubs at the White House. During that ceremony, he articulated the power of this connection.
“It is worth remembering — because sometimes people wonder: ‘Well, why are you spending time on sports? There’s other stuff going on’ — throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country is divided,” Obama said that mid-January day. “Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were. It is a game, and it is celebration, but there’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.”
As an African American who grew up a Cubs fan, it was an incredible moment of affirmation that I recall often. It takes me back to my childhood and how a mutual love of baseball helped me develop an authentic father-son relationship with my stepfather. He is the only father I have ever known, and I wouldn’t have become a sportswriter without the countless hours we spent talking and later arguing about sports.
During this break, the question for many isn’t merely about what we are going to watch instead. We also must wonder: What are we going to use as an icebreaker to build relationships and have more meaningful conversations?
The cynical might suggest reading a book and discussing it or using the time to develop a more balanced life. Don’t be a jerk. The reality is that no matter how educated or worldly or gifted at gab people are, we look to simple, universal things to connect. Sports, the ageless games that a large portion of society can’t get enough of, dominate the list of unifiers. The connection applies in many places, from chatting at the water cooler to gathering with buddies at a bar to hanging at your kids’ cute little events.
All of that built-in connection is gone, for now.
“Sports fans need to shift their conversation strategies to minimize the effect of losing live sporting events, or they’ll also lose strength in some of their connections and friendships,” said Jen Mueller, a Seattle-based reporter for Root Sports Northwest who is also the founder of “Talk Sporty To Me,” which helps people engage through sports conversation. “More than half of all Americans identify as sports fans in yearly surveys. Sports is-slash-was the only DVR-proof material on TV, and sports conversations provide more access to different groups of people than just about any other topic because sports fans talk to other sports fans regardless of age, experience, gender, race or level of fandom.
“Losing live sporting events means millions of sports fans no longer have a daily go-to conversation starter and connection point.”
The entire nation is not yet separating to the level that some areas are. But it is coming your way, and trust me, the feeling is so eerie that it makes introverts lonely. The family time has been wonderful, but I miss being stuck in traffic, waiting for a table at a restaurant and, yes, dealing with some schmuck who has yet to develop an inside voice or an understanding of personal space.
More than anything, I miss the screams of sports fans who think my opinions are wrong because, no matter the stance, at least half of the readers are going to disagree. And at least half of the time, they probably have a point. The daily conversation is challenging and enriching. Without it, I would have quit this job long ago. Or maybe the job would have quit me.
Remember when LeBron James put his $150 sneaker in his mouth at the beginning of this saga? Remember when he attacked the notion of playing games without spectators by declaring he wouldn’t compete in an empty arena because “I play for the fans”? He received appropriate criticism for being too uninformed and casual about a situation that has turned dire. But looking back at his remarks, we also should realize how profound those sentiments were.
James is one of the richest athletes in sports, and he’s one of the most famous people in the world. His life is fabulous wherever he is. But he needs sports and not just in a vacuum. He needs the community surrounding sports, too.
Kill the spread of the coronavirus, but long live sports. Come back and lift us from this dark, dreary state.