Sports escapism has been suspended. There is a chance the ol’ reliable expectation of games as breezy diversions may never return.
As a result, American athletics probably have entered an era of spectator volatility. Some of these leagues don’t realize it, but they will soon. Sports specialize in attaching themselves to what’s considered safe and unassailable, such as patriotism. Never before have they been this forceful, as a collective, in taking positions on anything polarizing. In post-George Floyd America, there’s a spirit of national compassion that, while not universal, has strength in numbers. For the business leaders in sports, the climate is safe enough to seek a connection, which is consistent with the wishes of athletes who want to use their celebrity to speak for the unheard.
We see it play out in the moments before events begin. What for decades had been a passive show of patriotism has turned into a roll call of demonstration. You can’t tune in for pregame festivities without witnessing some form of protest during the national anthem. You also can’t even turn on an NHL game or NASCAR race without being reminded that Black lives matter. You can’t hold out hope for a college football season without learning about the players fighting for representation and fairness.
I feel some sympathy for those who want sports simply to be sports again. I understand the desire to detach from the grief of this awful year. But if sports found a way to be close to 100 percent diversion during happier times, they remain at about 95 percent fun and games.
It takes about 150 minutes to watch an NBA game, complete with the bells and whistles of TV presentation. Not even 10 of those minutes are reserved for social justice. So for as much as sports seem different this summer, they really just got a new haircut and changed their shirt color for a good cause. It’s still easy to get lost in the games, even if the jerseys and fields of play have statements on them. That can be seen as a taxation of joy or as an opportunity to mix enrichment with familiar pleasure.
Still, some will see sports now as too progressive. It’s an easy target in our exasperating culture war, and depending on how you lean politically, it may be a turnoff. In a country that has turned public health protocols into politicized debate, what I see as clear human rights concerns somehow are turned into partisan issues.
In this era of spectator volatility, some fans will depart in disgust. Some will be more attracted to sports. Most figure to ride it out. The unknown is how business executives will react if there’s significant seesawing over the next few years. Sports don’t think very long-term because such vision isn’t usually required. And so, similar to the NFL protests of three years ago and the backlash President Trump led, I’m not certain the sports community truly has thought about all it has tied itself to in recent weeks. There are traces of a no-win predicament: The justice-seeking side will demand that there’s no letup, and the stick-to-sports side will scream that the games have been ruined.
It’s up to the leaders of sports, for once in their money-chasing lives, to stand their ground, resist hedging their bets and think about being on the right side of history. The challenge will be tough because, even if there is no fan attrition, they’ll still be dealing with an audience full of people who have lost significant income or who will be careful with their spending.
Because of the novel coronavirus, extreme revenue shortfalls are inevitable. If anti-justice boycotting actually becomes more than breathless overreaction, the stickiness of sports gets even stickier.
At this time, with determined athletes refusing to let off the gas, fans must reexamine what they want from sports, why they want it and where they see or don’t see room for compromise. If pregame protests or jersey messages are really too much for some people, it makes me wonder why they were drawn to the diverse world of sports in the first place. Was it pure escapism to concentrate on loving the game? Or was it just an effort to avoid the complexities of life by disappearing into a realm in which tradition, rules and order make everything seem tidy?
Do you watch sports because gifted humans thrill you by doing the unexpected? Or do you watch sports because they are neatly packaged games of athleticism and control in which complicated people try their hardest to do as they’re told?
The anthem is a metaphor for sports’ strange new existence. Pro leagues, especially the NFL, saw only goodwill and dollar signs in branding themselves patriotic. They never realized that overdramatized presentations of the anthem could become such an issue.
Now that kneeling and other forms of protest during “The Star-Spangled Banner” have become common, sports are stuck. In this climate, they don’t want to stifle their players’ desire to protest. And they don’t want to stop playing the anthem while players are on the court or field. So now the start of the anthem is like a school bell, but instead of changing classes, it’s a bat signal for choosing sides.
It’s a most uncomfortable sight, but it’s not the hint of civil disobedience that stays with me. These leagues are so inextricably knotted to the anthem — which you would think would be superfluous if athletics were nothing more than a trivial and apolitical haven — that they are, in essence, making a parade of the controversial demonstration.
The anthem represents the hole in the sports bubble. Sports stuck to it before anything else. Anyone who wanted sports insulated from society should have questioned the anthem as a pregame necessity long ago. That didn’t happen. Why? Symbolism is important, for both pride and control. And sports have no transcendent power if they are 100 percent sports.
Take the 95 percent and rejoice.